About that “hero” thing…

Today is National Navajo Code Talker Day. Twenty-nine Navajos volunteered for the Marines during a time when casualty figures in the Pacific Theater were horrific. They created an unbreakable code based on their language during and helped the U.S. retake the eastern Pacific. The Japanese had successfully cracked earlier codes, but never managed to conquer Navajo thanks to the cleverness of the code talkers. Some examples: The Navajo word for buzzard, jeeshóóʼ, was used for bomber, while the code word used for submarine, béésh łóóʼ, meant iron fish and Hitler was the “crazy white man.”

The code talkers joined the Marines for many reasons: patriotism, money, false promises: Samuel Holiday joined because, he said he believed the recruiters when they said they were going to take care of his mother: “They told me they’d pay to buy me a house like the white man’s, with running water – which I never got,” Holiday, like all the others was sworn to secrecy until 1968 when the government declassified the code.

President Reagan declared August 19th National Code Talker Day in 1982 and in 2001 George Bush presented four of the five living code talkers with the Congressional Gold Medal for their service to the country. The Navajo nation still honors them annually. Last year a Navajo elder said, “It’s important that the accomplishments of this group of men are recognized because our language was used to change the tide of the war. In Navajo society, we hold our warriors in high esteem and with this group, this is their day.” Only one original code talker, Chester Nez, remains. He lives in Albuquerque with his son. There are 40-70 other code talkers estimated still living.

I have watched with dismay recently as Twitter and other social media sites have grown increasingly negative. The word “hero” has even drawn heavy digital fire: A man purporting to be an Iraqi Freedom Vet declared that heroes didn’t work for money. And another pundit declared that Representative Joe Walsh had been right to assail Tammy Duckworth his opponent in the upcoming election. Walsh had called on listeners to believe that Duckworth couldn’t be a real hero because he believes that “real heroes” don’t talk about their accomplishments. Duckworth was a helicopter pilot who lost both legs and partial use of one arm in a war time crash. Duckworth endured grueling rehabilitation and went on to become the director of veterans affairs for Illinois. Recently, a Walsh supporter tweeted that Duckworth could never be called a hero, at least not as long as she belonged to the wrong political party. Anyone, it seems, can be muster boldness on TV, Twitter or Facebook. Drunk on attention, large or small, they attack without regard for the consequences. Boldness is not bravery.

A hero is not created on the battlefield or in the midst of crisis. A hero receives recognition for public courage, but their a selfless character and inherent nobility preceded their actions. A person who accepts a daunting assignment and does it well in spite of fear or adversity is a hero.20120820-003448.jpg And that definition fits those who will never have an audience to applaud their bravery.

I view teachers, healers, volunteers, warriors, community activists, poets, parents, supportive spouses. journalists, aid workers, caregivers and human rights activists as heroes. Few celebrities or sports figures are heroes for me save those that used their immense power to make a difference. As Brooke Foss Wescott said, “Great occasions do not make heroes or cowards; they simply unveil them to the eyes of men. Silently and imperceptibly, as we wake or sleep, we grow strong or weak; and at last some crisis shows what we have become. ”

My role model heroes are: The woman down the street who spent her life raising a disabled child with love and grace; the women in my OCS class who endured harassment and abuse to be the first to pin on bars; the draftee medics and social workers I met at Brooke Army Hospital who cared for burn victims evacuated there from Vietnam who were not going to survive their injuries; the dozens of addicts, alcoholics and convicts I have known who have restarted their lives while making amends to those around them in the process; the boyfriends who shielded their lovers from the Aurora gunman; and men, like my former father-in-law, who gave up his artistic pursuits after WWII to ensure that his children would go to college in hopes it would prevent them from ever going to war.

The Tuskegee Airman, Japanese-American Soldiers, and the Navajo Code Breakers were paid for their service, but they were hardly compensated for their sacrifices. Very few of us could have performed as well in the face of brutal racism and lack of materiel and command support for missions.

Tammy Duckworth is twice a hero for her immense losses and for being a role model for anyone hoping to overcome terrible challenges. I hope she talks often and with great pride about her journey. I am hoping November brings to an end these politically motivated assaults that put to question a person’s patriotism or character of service.

We owe it to our brothers and sisters in arms, combatants and service support personnel alike, to honor their extraordinary work by welcoming them back to civilian life by finding them jobs and caring for them on their return. And by defending them, heroes all, against the bold and unappreciative among us for whatever reason. The Navajos left their reservations headed for the pacific on behalf of a country that held them in low regard. Some of them fought side by side with white marines, the first non-indians they had ever known. And they joined knowing that a third of the soldiers that would fight at places like Iwo Jima would not survive. They should have been celebrated long ago. And we should applaud all those who leave their homes and we should do it now–before they are no longer here to honor.

Today’s call to action:

Drop by the Navajo Code Talkers Museum site and give of your time, talent or a few dollars to preserve and important history.


How to say “Semper Fi” in Polish

I dread turbulence, but I worry more about unexpected troubles on the trip through immigration or a TSA line. After seven hours on a train, followed by 15 hours in the air, I lack enthusiasm for a jet stream of questions from a uniformed officer of my own country. Asking why I have been in China for seven years is reasonable, questioning why I want to return always seems a little odd. After boot camp and OCS I was pretty certain I would never voluntarily put myself in a situation where I would be screamed at 24/7, but after a few minutes with TSA personnel at LAX last year I realized we are all back in boot camp and not likely to graduate as long as the war on terror continues. But, I digress…

After clearing customs in Chicago–interesting that you do the same thing with immigration that you do in a minefield–I mustered the last of my energy to catch the shuttle for hotel.

In sharp contrast to my greeting at O’Hare was the outstretched hand of Paul Kowalik the man behind the desk at the Baymount Inn near the airport. We had never met before, but after learning that I was a veteran he enthusiastically welcomed me home and thanked me for my service. It was the first time anyone had ever said those words to me. My peers from the Vietnam era must be as shocked as I am, but grateful that the one thing most people in our divided country can agree on is an appreciation of those who have served in the armed forces.

Paul’s actions seemed heartfelt, but I sensed there was something motivating his special enthusiasm and asked him about his feelings. He told me his brother had served in the Marines and had been deployed to Iraq shortly after the allied invasion.

I was no longer jet lagged and listened intently to Paul tell me the story of his family’s emigration to America. Their father, who had been doing business here for a decade, moved Paul’s mother and brother to Chicago. He died only two years after relocating, but, the family was determined to gain citizenship. Paul’s brother Jakub joined the military after the 9-11 attacks hoping to make a difference for his adopted country and to gain a leg up on immigration while earning money to pursue college after enlistment. There are approximately 31,000 “green-card” soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen in the U.S. military. They’re permanent legal residents but not U.S. citizens. Yet, like Jakub, they chose to defend the country where they live.

On Mothers Day 2003 Jakub and other young Marines ordered to call home. Danuta Kowalik, his mother, was thrilled to hear from her son and grateful he was safe and able to call home. She asked about the $900 protective vest she had sent to him, as did many parents when safer gear was not issued to troops, and asked about his work. It was the last time she would speak to him. He became the first non-citizen soldier killed in Iraq when the unexploded ordnance he had volunteered to help move detonated.

“He was kind and generous and volunteered for everything” said his brother Paul. His family is no different. Danuta belongs to Gold Star Mothers an organization with the the highest dues and most difficult membership requirements: You must have lost a child to war. Danuka devotes time, talent and money to helping families who have made the ultimate sacrifice. And Paul reaches out to veterans at every chance. It is not unusual for him to pick up the bill at a diner for a table of new graduates from nearby Great Lakes Naval Station.

In a ceremony held by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, and attended by Illinois Lt. Governor Pat Quinn, Jakub was granted posthumous citizenship. “I think that when someone gives their life for our country, they certainly should be citizens,” said Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, who attended the ceremony. “I think Jakub is in that great tradition of patriots who believed in liberty, freedom and democracy.”

Danuta Kowalik clutched a framed certificate that officially granted her son, Lance Cpl. Jakub Kowalik, something that, in her eyes, he had already earned–American citizenship. “Citizenship for Jakub was a special thing because he dreamed of it,” Danuta Kowalik of Schaumburg said Tuesday, on what would have been her son’s 22nd birthday. “It was like a special gift I got for my son today. I’m sure he’s smiling now.”

And in December of last year, just before his birthday, Paul was granted U.S. citizenship. “This is the greatest country in the world. They welcomed me to America last year. I know how that feels, so I want to honor any soldier who was away fighting for us,” he said.

I saw Paul last week and will see him many more times I am sure. I am awed by their faithfulness to each other, their son’s memory and to veteran soldiers. “We are family now,” he told me as we hugged goodbye. “Welcome Home!”



Related story on NPR: 25 troops become citizens. Kandahar