As you probably know, last week President Obama awarded The Congressional Medal of Honor to former Marine Sergeant Dakota Meyer for saving 13 U.S. and 23 Afghan soldiers during an intense fire fight in 2009. That day, Sgt. Meyer realized that a patrol operating in a town near his position was being ambushed. After repeatedly being denied permission to help, he and another Marine drove a Humvee directly into the battle. With Meyer manning the gun on the Humvee, the duo made five trips over a six-hour period into a death zone, extracting the 36 soldiers and 4 dead comrades. “I never expected to live through the encounter,” Sgt. Meyer said, “but I entered the battle because my guys were in there.”
In reading his explanation, I was reminded of another American hero–Audie Murphy. Murphy, also a Medal of Honor recipient, was the most decorated American soldier in World War II. When Murphy and his men were about to be overrun by a large contingent of German soldiers, Murphy ordered his men to fall back while he manned a machine gun on the top of a Jeep and held off enemy soldiers for over a hour. When asked why he did so, he replied “Because they were trying to kill my friends.”
As I thought about the reason each man gave for his courageous actions, I saw that by its nature an indispensable motivator of any heroic deed is that the welfare of others is at stake. More to the point, an heroic act is probably the most beneficent manifestation of why we are put on this planet–to help one another. As the Medal of Honor is the highest honor we can bestow on our military heroes, the acts that encourage this recognition reflect the highest order of compassion.
After the award ceremony, Sgt. Meyer reflected, “It’s hard…getting recognized for the worst day of your life.” I’m not surprised at his response, as true heroes are by nature humble souls. Humility is in my view the sire of all the virtues–has there ever lived a truly great man or woman who was not humble? Humble individuals like Dakota Meyer possess a quiet certitude. They know what is required of them, so when they accomplish extraordinary acts they look a little surprised—they just did what they were expected to do; they always appear as if they had been there before!
Ralph Waldo Emerson believed that “A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer.” Clearly Emerson never met a man like Dakota Meyer. Heroes like the former Marine sergeant are braver in ways Emerson’s definition does not imagine. While the span of time during which they enact their heroism may be only minutes or hours, the memory of their acts is embedded in the awards we honor them with and thus in the fabric of our nation’s history for all time to come–the compassion of their acts reverberating through the universe.