One of my favorite aspects of the recent Memorial Day holiday coupled with the anniversary of D-Day is the unironic respect, for one day, that television networks give to our heroes and veterans. For …
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One of my favorite aspects of the recent Memorial Day holiday coupled with the anniversary of D-Day is the unironic respect, for one day, that television networks give to our heroes and veterans. For one day, it seems, the powers that be in Hollywood and New York are willing and, maybe, even happy, to run entire days’ worth of programming devoted to telling the stories of the men who volunteered to put on a uniform with an American flag on it, and run into the most dangerous places in the world to beat back tyrants and megalomaniacs.
Thus, we are treated to day-long marathons of shows like “Band of Brothers,” which tells the story of the 101st Airborne, 506th Battalion, Easy Company, from its formation in Georgia all the way through to the liberation of one of the subcamps of Dachau, and the eventual victory in Europe in World War II. If you’ve never seen it, you should. It is an unsparing look at the horrors and brutality of war, and of the extraordinary character of the men who fight it on our behalf. At the center of the story is Maj. Dick Winters, who was awarded the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross for his efforts.
Then there’s “Hacksaw Ridge,” the story of Desmond Doss, a committed pacifist who, nonetheless, served as a medic in the Pacific Theater of World War II, and, during the Invasion of Okinawa, repeatedly scaled a cliff in the dead of night to carry wounded soldiers off the battlefield. And when I say, “repeatedly,” I’m vastly understating it: Pfc. Doss climbed up the cliff *75* times to pick up a wounded comrade, and 75 times scaled down the cliff with his burden. For his heroism, Desmond Doss was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor … all without firing a single shot.
There is also “Men of Honor,” the story of Carl Brashear, the first African-American Master Diver in the U.S. Navy. This movie tells of how Brashear overcomes racism to rise through the ranks, saves a crew and recovers a missing hydrogen bomb (!) in the 1966 Palomares incident, survives having his leg amputated and, yet, fights his way back into honorable service. Brashear was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, the highest non-combat award in the U.S. Navy.
Coincidentally, I just finished reading the book “Beyond Valor,” the story of Sergeant Henry Erwin, who served aboard a B-29 bomber during the bombing campaign of Japan in 1945. On one particular mission, his plane was flying lead in the bombing run, which meant one of its responsibilities was to drop phosphorous bombs over the target to mark it for the others. One night, that bomb got stuck in the chute and began to burn inside the plane. Erwin picked up the phosphorous bomb — which burns at over 1,000 degrees — and carried it through the plane to throw it out an open hatch, saving the lives of his entire crew. He too, was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Stories of our heroes are more important than simply glorifying their deeds. They inform us of who we are, what we fight for (Band of Brothers, episode 9, “Why We Fight”) and who, at our very best, we are capable of being. I do not deny that we often fail at living up to these men (to date, there is only one woman MoH recipient, a Civil War doctor), and that, in many ways, there is no doubt these men were imperfect.
But, I think — in fact, I know — that’s the point. We’re waiting for Superman or Captain America, men and women of unimpeachable character and superhuman abilities to save the day. What our real heroes inform us is that, as the song says, “If I can, you can too.”
Also, and more importantly these days (from “Saving Private Ryan), sometimes their sacrifices beg us to look in the mirror and say to ourselves “Earn this.”
Michael Alcorn is a teacher and writer who lives in Arvada with his wife and three children. His new novel, “Valkyrie’s Kiss,” a finalist in the ScreenCraft Book Competition, is available now at michaeljalcorn.net. His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media.
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