There is courage, and then there is courage.
There is the instinctive courage that comes in a split second, the-no-time-to-think courage that throws itself on a live grenade to save lives. For that they give you the Medal of Honor in exchange for your life.
There is the courage that races through enemy fire to bring back a wounded comrade. Maybe there will be a Purple Heart in it for you, maybe a Silver Star, or if you’re lucky, your life.
There is the kind of courage that young B-17 pilots, kids mostly, had to have to go up day after day to bomb Nazi factories, flying through “flak so thick, you could walk on it,” with Me 109s and FW 190s coming out of the sun, like a swarm of deadly wasps, after their ass, after their life.
There is the courage of the young men flying those 109s and 190s whose job it was to destroy as many B-17s as they could, knowing that flying into a formation of eighty B-17s is also flying into eight hundred 50-caliber machine guns all seeking your airplane and your life.
General Mackey Steinhoff said he was twenty-one when he escorted Nazi bombers in their runs over London. Returning from those terrible raids, he would go to the back of his fighter where no one could see him and lean over the stabilizer “and puke my guts out." But he went back up every day.
Admiral Bill Houser told me, when he commanded the USS Constellation off Viet Nam and got the radio reports that his planes were coming back, he would go up on the bridge and train his glasses on the horizon. "From the bridge, you can see twenty miles at sea, and I would look for holes in the formations. I would stand there with tears streaming down my face knowing from the empty spaces which of my young men I had sent up to die that day." And he would have to send them back again and again, day after day. There is that kind of quiet, lonesome courage.
There is the courage of a mother or father with a disabled child, for whom three meals a day must be prepared – a thousand this year and a thousand next, who, day after day, with no room for error and no time off, administers medications, cleans, dresses, lifts, transports, reads to and finds ways to brighten the life of someone unable to do the same for himself – day in and day out, year in and year out with a little sympathy to help now and then but never much more than that. There are no medals for this kind of courage, not in this life.
Perhaps the greatest courage is that which comes softly and is held within. It is the moral courage it takes to send men aloft or into peril. It is the courage to take risk and responsibility for other lives. It covers the long day’s journey helping the helpless without complaint. It will speak the unpopular truth to anyone at any time.
It is courage that prepares a man to stand tall in his final hour and accept himself for everything he is and everything he is not.