On Memorial Day weekend I was reading through an excellent new book by Adm. William H. McRaven, titled, “The Hero Code.” It’s filled full of his personal encounters and acquaintances with men and women who exemplified what it means to be an exceptional leader – those who demonstrate “The Hero Code.” The stories are unique, often unexpected and of course heartwarming and inspiring.
Their hero code is represented in the character qualities of courage, humility, sacrifice, integrity, compassion, perseverance, duty, hope, humor and forgiveness. Please read those one more time, even slower. Wow, don’t we all wish we were card-carrying members of all those traits? I’m certainly not, at least not all of them, but I try and will keep on trying.
Not manifesting all of those characteristics doesn’t mean we can’t manifest some of them, or even most of them, and grow in those we haven’t yet obtained. That is Adm. McRaven’s hope and goal, and I guarantee you that if you read this book, you’ll be inspired to grow in all those qualities, too.
I don’t want to give away more of the book’s contents, so I’m saving his stories for you to read for yourself. But I have a few of my own I want to share during this week we commemorate Memorial Day. Two come from vets who revealed the hero code while they were alive. The other showed us the hero code through his death. Two show us how to live well and the third how to die well.
My first example comes from a 95-year old vet who gave a young boy a lesson in courage.
All summer long 4-year-old Dylan Stitch was afraid to dive off the diving board. Dylan’s mom, Marla explained, “He had no interest in it, ever. We were just saying, ‘Hey, you want to give it a shot? You want to give it a try?'”
CBS News reported, “Enter 95-year-old Daniel Biss, who was in the Air Force during World War II and the Korean War. He knows a thing or two about fear and bravery. So when he saw a neighbor kid at a family pool party in Canton, Ohio, and heard everyone trying to coax him off the board, he knew exactly what Dylan needed.
“So, Daniel borrowed a swimsuit, and with cane in hand stepped up to set the example. The great-grandfather hadn’t been on a diving board in 50 years. Yet he stood up on one, ready to teach a lesson in courage, which nearly turned into a lesson in first aid.”
Bliss said, “Just needed some convincing, I guess. I was going to try.”
Marla said, “Everyone kind of held their breath and got real nervous like, ‘Oh, was this a bad idea?'” Daniel said, “I was up there that far, I figured I may as well go through with it.” So, at the age of 95, he dove for Dylan.
It wasn’t the most graceful dive, but it did the trick. Shortly after, Daniel took his first leap off the diving board!
Mother Marla said, “It was really neat that that inspired him to do it. It was a neat moment.”
It’s the “Daniel Blisses” of this life who demonstrate the hero code by knowing the way, showing the way and going the way.
Speaking of heroes to children and so many less fortunate, my wife, Gena, and I have to give a heartfelt and grateful tribute to our amazing friend and culture hero Foster Friess, who just passed away this last week at 81 years young. He and his awesome and beloved wife, Lynn, were a dynamic duo and tremendous help to our KickStart Kids organization that teaches character through karate in Texas middle schools.
We couldn’t agree more with Sen. Rand Paul, who tweeted about Friess, calling him: “A true Patriot, a generous philanthropist, and a good person who always had a kind and encouraging word. His accomplishments are many, and he will be missed.” (As a younger patriot, Foster trained to be an infantry platoon leader and served as the intelligence officer for the 1st Guided Missile Brigade at Fort Bliss, Texas.)
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson tweeted: “Today we lost a great American patriot & follower of Christ, Foster Friess was a man with a great heart and a deep love for America.”
The world lost a truly great, kind, generous Christian man, and Heaven gained a true Saint. Foster exemplified the hero code by living a life of love and being a great steward of God’s resources, sacrificing for others through his time, talents and treasures. It is said he gave away roughly $500 million dollars and even more of his heart. That is even more impressive when one realizes his net worth in 2012 was $530 million.
It was no surprise to those who knew him when earlier this year, President Trump, Sen. Jim DeMint and Rep. Mark Meadows presented Friess with the Conservative Lifetime Achievement Award.
The world and our country is far better off for Foster Friess having been in it. I know that those who bear his legacy – Lynnette, their four children and 15 grandchildren – will carry on his torch for decades to come.
My last example of the hero code is my most personal. It comes from someone I think of nearly every day and even more at this time of year: my brother, Wieland, who gave his life during the war in Vietnam on June 3, 1970. I still remember it like it was yesterday.
At the height of the war, both of my younger brothers, Wieland and Aaron, enlisted in the U.S. Army. As a veteran myself, I understood their desire to serve, and I concurred with their decision to enlist. After all, the U.S. Air Force turned my life around. It helped me get on the right path. Maybe the Army would do the same for my brothers.
Aaron was stationed in Korea on the DMZ, and Wieland was sent to Vietnam. As Wieland headed off to Nam, I hugged and kissed him and said, “I’m going to miss you. Be careful.”
In 1970, I was refereeing a Karate tournament in California when I heard an announcement over the loudspeaker: “Chuck Norris, you have an urgent call.” I hustled over to the phone. I recognized the muffled voice of my then mother-in-law, and she was crying. “What’s wrong, Evelyn?” I asked. “Your brother Wieland has been killed in Vietnam.”
If I had been kicked in the stomach by a dozen karate champions at the same time, it could not have impacted me more. I staggered back away from the phone as though that would somehow make Evelyn’s words untrue. It didn’t.
I hung up the phone, moving in what felt like slow motion. For a long time, I couldn’t function. I simply sat in shock, thinking about my little brother, Wieland, my best friend whom I would never see again in this life. Right there, in front of anyone who cared to see, I wept uncontrollably.
I learned later that Wieland had been killed while walking point. If you don’t know, “to walk point” means to assume the first and most exposed position in a combat military formation. It’s the lead soldier or unit advancing through hostile or unsecured territory.
Wieland’s squad was surrounded in dangerous enemy territory, when every other soldier refused in fear to walk point. Odds are it meant most certain death. Wieland courageously stepped forward when no one else would. When the Vietcong fired on him, the rest of his squad knew their location and were then able to fight their way out. Wieland sacrificed his life and saved dozens of others that day. He embodied the hero code in every way!
In those early years after his death, I tried to help our mom the best I could, but hers was a pain particular to parents of war – something I would never fully understand. In fact, for the first time, she wrote about Wieland’s life and sacrifice in detail in her autobiography: “Acts of Kindness: My Story.”
When Wieland was 12 years old, he had a premonition that he would not live to be 28. Wieland died June 3, 1970, one month before his 28th birthday.
It’s hard to believe that this year and week marks the 51st anniversary of his death. I still miss my brother terribly – we all do. I think of Wieland often and am comforted only by the certainty that one day we will be giving him a great big hug in Heaven.
Speaking of Heaven, no column on heroes would be complete without mentioning the true originator of the hero code: Jesus Christ. The Good Book states: “God demonstrated His love [dare I say, the hero code] in this: While we were yet sinners [weak and helpless], Christ died for us.” There is no equal to His heroic, sacrificial and epic story of deliverance for mankind.
You may never find yourself in the middle of a battlefield, giving away $500 million or even living by a kid who’s too afraid to jump in a pool, but that doesn’t mean you can’t daily demonstrate the hero code right in your own backyard to those close to you. You don’t have to be a superhero.
I think Superman was right, or should I say he who once played the flying savior on screen and a real-life earthly champion with his own disabilities, Christopher Reeve, who said: “A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”
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