There has been a lot in the news lately about celebrities and politicians who inflated their participation in combat. Others, who were never in the military, passed themselves off as veterans. This has been called “Stolen Valor.”
But in a way, that is not true. Real valor can’t be stolen.
The so-called purveyors of “Stolen Valor,” it seems, live somewhat vicariously. This is the reality show phenomenon translated to life. Do you want a more exciting life? Well tune in and see someone wrestle an alligator. Do you want to be a hero? Well simply tell a bogus combat story or buy some medals to wear.
Who will know the difference?
Well many is the answer. For being a hero is more than telling a story or wearing medals.
In his classic novel about the U.S. Space Program, The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe speaks to this but never clearly defines it. Those with the Right Stuff are the best of the best. They do amazing things. They exhibit qualities that many would wish to have. They are larger than life, yet they simply act as one among others doing the job that needs to be done.
I flew with such men: Col Chuck DeBellevue, the leading ace of the Vietnam War; Col Roger Locher, who evaded capture on the ground in North Vietnam for 23 days before rescue; the late Lt Gen Edward Tixier, my former commander in Alaska; Brig Gen Keith Connolly, a highly decorated pilot who was featured on the History Channel program, “Vietnam in HD;” Brig Gen Jon Reynolds, a POW in North Vietnam for 8 years, who taught with me at the Air Force Academy, and closer to home, my late uncle who fought in the Battle of the Bulge. All are good examples of men of valor, which by any standard is the Right Stuff.
These men share many things, but the most important is this: You would never know what they had done; they did not flaunt their experiences. They led by example not with faux bravado or embroidery to their resumes. Their focus was outward not on themselves. I have seen men in authority who treated those in lesser positions as if they were of lesser value. To me that was always a key marker of great leaders, how they treated others not just those above them, but those below. The exceptional leaders all exhibited highest personal standards that could not help but influence all who knew them. They were the men you would follow into Hell if they asked you to do it.
Real valor flows out of duty, sacrifice, and commitment to something bigger than self. These men moved out of the comfort zone of home, family and community, subjected themselves to trials and dangers that few today can imagine, and in the end simply did their duty to the best of their abilities.
Those who weave stories of combat dangers or wear medals not earned, do not steal valor. They invent it.
Real valor belongs only to the men who have earned it.
Rather, instead of ‘Stolen Valor” what we are seeing is “purloined praise.” It is praise only for the sake of praise to feed the egos of those who lap it up like cream. Valor doesn’t demand praise; it is of itself its own reward.
And those of us who have shared experiences with real men of valor, are far richer for having known them.