Coming off this holiday of thanks, it’s easy to remember that life has so much to offer. Certainly, the past year has exemplified the deepest of valleys and highest of mountains. We’ve seen the worst of mankind–and the absolute best.
Sometimes, in the dark times, we misplace the ability to relish what we have, to be thankful for the opportunity to keep trying. It’s in those moments that a recommitment to living beyond ourselves and focusing fully on the summits before us defines who we are.
I had the opportunity to meet a Medal of Honor recipient a couple of weeks ago, Gen. Patrick Brady. Talk about a dose of perspective. His story is a great reminder that courage and compassion exist hand-in-hand, that picking up and trying again makes an incredible difference. General Brady speaks with a brilliant combination of depth and humor, whether he’s addressing a crowd of benefactors or just an average guy like me who wanted to introduce his teenage son to a Medal of Honor recipient.
Brady attended the Army Aviation School in Fort Rucker, Ala., back in the early 1960s. He learned to fly helicopters and became one of the first Dust Off pilots, airborne medevacs who fly into battle zones to extract wounded soldiers.
Brady’s commander, the famed Maj. Charles Kelly, who pioneered use of air evacuation, died in combat when he steered his helicopter into a hot landing zone. Being warned of imminent danger and told to abort, Kelly replied, “When I have your wounded.” A bullet seared through an open cargo door and struck him in the heart.
The next day, Patrick Brady assumed command of the squadron. An officer walked into his office and tossed the bullet that had killed Kelly on his desk, asking if he intended to fly less aggressively and protect his pilots more. Brady replied, “We are going to keep flying exactly the way Kelly taught us to fly, without hesitation, anytime, anywhere.” And he did.
A few years after his commander’s death, Major Brady volunteered to evacuate wounded soldiers from an area near Chu Lai, Vietnam. Dense fog and smoke covered the ground where the soldiers lay. He turned his helicopter sideways to disperse the fog and find the small landing zone while the enemy raked his ship with unchecked gunfire. He landed briefly, grabbed the soldiers, and returned his heavily damaged chopper to base. But he didn’t rest.
Brady acquired another helicopter and went back for more wounded splayed under the dense fog. Again, sensing the aircraft an easy target, the enemy attacked at close range. Brady made four trips to the same small, dangerous landing zone until he evacuated all that he could. He returned to base once more with a bullet-riddled helicopter. Before the day’s battle ended, Brady received a call from American soldiers wounded in an enemy minefield and he did the unthinkable. He took off for the minefield.
With enemy fire peppering his helicopter, Brady landed, causing a mine to detonate nearby. Soldiers tumbled into his aircraft and he moved them away from the incoming fire. He returned to base a final time with a day’s total of 51 soldiers alive because of his courage. Shortly thereafter, the president awarded Brady the Medal of Honor. For his part, Brady described his actions as just another day with one exception: Someone wrote it down.
The Medal of Honor is not bestowed on someone for saving his own life. Instead, the Medal of Honor signifies the courage to live beyond oneself, to do for others without regard for the individual. As General Brady spoke, I couldn’t help but think of the opportunities that await this time of year.
While you and I will hopefully never have to navigate enemy fire, we do know it’s inevitable that life’s minefields await. Invariably, we’ll find difficult situations hidden within friendships, within family, and even within our own faith. That’s where perspective kicks in and moves us forward, urging us to go back again and again, to do more, to be more.
We may have to switch approaches, swallow fear, or make multiple attempts in the face of overwhelming odds. But to stop trying is submission to failure. To keep going makes triumph possible.
On the day I met him, General Brady spoke about building the National Medal of Honor Museum, a site dedicated to highlighting those who lived beyond themselves. Today, it’s easy to take heart from his words, from the acts of courage they embody. It’s easy to recognize the need for recommitment to our better angels and recognition that giving thanks is an important part of living well.
Of course, this perspective never has to wait for a holiday to come around. We can show courage and compassion without pause, we can revel in both the valleys and the mountains, and we can grit our teeth and choose to do for others before ourselves.
As General Brady said, we can do this without hesitation, anytime, anywhere.
Steve Straessle, whose column appears every other Saturday, is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Twitter @steve_straessle.