Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Misfit Heroes

Serendipity happens to me a lot. When it does, I feel as if a mini-miracle has occurred. It happened again today.

I was thinking about Daniel Hernandez this morning. You know. The young University of Arizona student who bravely rushed toward the sound of gunshots when U. S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head. The one who stayed with Gabby throughout her trip to the ER in order to "look after her emotional needs." The one who was honored at the Tucson tribute to the victims of Jared Lee Loughner's rampage of insanity. The one they called A Hero.

I was thinking about how every time someone is singled out for some selfless act of bravery, that person self-consciously rejects the title of Hero. I wonder when and how it was decided that allowing oneself to be called Hero without demurring is politically incorrect. It happened last year when Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta became the first living soldier from the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan to be chosen to receive the Medal of Honor. Giunta's discomfort at being singled out was palpable.

I was thinking about the fact that Daniel didn't even have a gun.

Several hours later I decided to fire up my Roku to download one of my Netflix choices. Don't ask me why, but I tend to watch documentaries when I do that. Today's feature was The Conscientious Objector, the story of Desmond Doss, the first United States Medal of Honor winner who never touched a gun.

There it was. My serendipitous event of the week had arrived. Not only had I found myself a genuine war hero; I found myself another hero who didn't use a gun to become one. And, yes, he was reluctant, too.

Desmond Doss's story could be well known among comic book readers of a certain age, but it wasn't to me. Apparently in the early 1940s, in a backlash against the proliferation of super hero comics, True Comics published a series of comic books based on real-life heroes. The one about Desmond Doss was called Hero Without A Gun.

The really interesting connection between Tucson's anti-hero Loughner and Desmond Doss is that they were both social misfits. Unless you have been away on a space-shuttle or something, you know that Jared gradually alienated just about everyone around him. Doss was a devout member of the Seventh Day Adventist church, and he walked around with a bible everywhere he went. He was determined to keep all ten of the commandments every day of his life, which somehow failed to enhance his coolness rating among his peers.

When World War II erupted for the U.S., there were few men of the proper age who didn't at least try to enlist in the armed forces. The movie points out that some men who were physically impaired, and therefore, ineligible to join, actually committed suicide in despair.

Doss was no different. He wanted to do his part, too. But on his terms:

1) He refused to carry a gun because Thou Shalt Not Kill.

2) He refused to "work" on Saturdays because Thou Shalt Keep Holy the Sabbath. Like Jews, Seventh Day Adventists observe sundown Friday through sundown Saturday as their Sabbath.

Against all odds, Doss became an Army medic and was deployed to the Pacific Theater. He was teased and ridiculed unmercifully because of his non-stop bible reading and his baffling ability to get himself excused from duty on Saturdays. One of his officers tried his best to get him kicked out. But Doss prevailed.

The diminutive Desmond Doss (5' 6" 150 pounds) was fearless in his determination to minister to fallen soldiers. He once picked up a live grenade to try to toss it away from his men, but it exploded right after it left his hands and blew 17 pieces of shrapnel into both his legs. Still he kept crawling from victim to victim, treating their wounds. A bullet then shattered the bone in his left arm. He lay there for five hours waiting for another medic. As he was being carried on a litter to safety, he spotted a soldier who was more critically injured than he was. He ordered the medics to lower him to the ground so that he could attend to the wounded man.

In a 12-hour fracas between his men and members of the Japanese army, Doss single-handedly treated, tied and lowered 75 wounded men down the side of Okinawa's 400-foot Maeda escarpment, while the rest of his men took cover. Doss told officials later that he prayed the entire time, asking God to let him save "just one more" after each one. He was never hit by any enemy fire. When he was offered the use of a handgun by one of the wounded, still he refused.

A Japanese soldier spoke of the Battle of Okinawa and Desmond Doss after the war ended. He said he had his weapon trained on Doss as he worked fearlessly on his fallen comrades. Each time he fired, the weapon jammed. There were several stories like that, stories that seemed to suggest that Doss had some sort of special protection.

When President Harry S. Truman pinned the Medal of Honor on Desmond Doss on October 12, 1945, several of the men who had harassed him in boot camp were looking on. Their lives were among those Doss had saved in the Battle of Okinawa.

Neither Daniel Hernandez nor Desmond Doss bears the swagger of a likely hero. No Audie Murphy, they. In fact, they are a little on the nerdy side, possibly accustomed to being loners. Daniel's teenaged siblings describe him as "quiet and bookish." If either Hernandez or Doss were in a high school cafeteria having lunch, it probably wouldn't have been at the "cool kids table." And neither needed a gun to become a hero.

As my Grandpa used to say, "it takes all kinds."

Desmond Doss

February 7, 1919–March 23, 2006

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