I watched the livestream of today’s Medal of Honor ceremony, an award which is bestowed on members of our military who displayed great courage, performed acts of valor, and stepped up to the call of duty in such a way that the world is better because of their service. Army medic James McCloughan, who I don’t know directly but indirectly through his family, was rightly honored and celebrated, and I’m inspired by his story of bravery in Vietnam.
The last things anyone would ever want to see are the first things that an Army medic sees, especially when an entire platoon is under ambush. His is the story of a hero, a hero through and through, and his bravery nearly 50 years ago means that some of his fellow soldiers who would’ve otherwise died that day made it out alive.
I imagine what it would be like to be a hero of his caliber. This isn’t IronMan, nor is it Captain America. If anything, it’s Captain America in real life. What would it be like to know that you are the reason others are alive, and that you saved them voluntarily and at great risk to yourself? Can you imagine?
Yet I also imagine what it would be like to be one of the guys James lifted off the battlefield, the gauze from his pocket holding my innards as he carried me to safety with his blood-stained hands.
Which one would you want to be? The hero or the saved? My hunch is that we’d all choose the role of the hero rather than that of victim. But we don’t have any control over that, do we?
It seems that this man made a decision long before he saw the battlefield. Called to serve his country, he simply served his country. It was his decision to serve that carried him — and others — to safety. His commitment was stronger than his inclination for self preservation, and, even more impressively, stronger than his commanding officer who ordered him not to go back in and get more wounded soldiers. He went anyway.
So, in some sense, no, we don’t have control over what role we will play when life throws us into a battlefield, be it victim or bystander. But we do have some sway over how we will carry ourselves in the yet-seen opportunities to do something heroic. No, I probably won’t serve in a battlefield, and I’m not looking for a medal, but I will be faced with countless opportunities to be part of the solution when a problem arises. What can I decide now that might make someone’s day… or save their life?
You know, free will isn’t all it’s cracked up to be! It’s nice to be able to do whatever we want, but it’s also true that very few things will force us to act beyond the basic demands of our own life and comfort. Sure, I could help my neighbor with a flat tire, but nowhere is it written that I absolutely must. I may have the opportunity to step out of my comfort zone and do the thing that brings life and healing, but very few things (if any) would force my hand. And sometimes I want to stay silent, which only maintains the damage of our broken world. I’m free to just stand there but I’m also free to do something. The role of the servant requires a decision in advance, well before the opportunity arises.
I’m grateful for the ones — Army medic James McCloughan, especially — who made the decision to serve and carried it through. Watching him receive the Medal through my tiny iPhone screen, I felt close enough to be genuinely inspired. And it seemed like something needed to be said, even owned up to, by me.
James McCloughan did the right thing, and that seems like a good way to live.