A shell burst inside the B-17, Flying Fortress cabin, peppering Capt. Jay Zeamer with hot shrapnel, breaking his leg. Despite the injuries and blood loss, Capt. Zeamer remained at the controls through another 40 minutes of air battle until the fuel starved zeroes returned to base. Only then did the pilot relinquish the controls to his co-pilot.
Drifting in and out of consciousness, he helped direct the battered B-17 to an emergency landing at a secondary airfield 580 miles away.
Sent to Vietnam as a C-130 loadmaster, Airman 1st Class John Levitow soon found himself crewing an AC-47 gunship.
Working at night with the aid of 3,000 degree flares, the gunship was rocked by the violent explosion of an enemy mortar round.
With an armed flare now bouncing around the cargo hold, Levitow sprung into action. Despite 40 shell fragments embedded in his flesh, he threw himself onto the phosphorous, hugged it to his body, crawled to the open door and heaved it out. The flare exploded a split second later.
After watching his wingman crash-land on a special forces airstrip near Cambodia, Maj. Bernie Fisher shifted from A-1 Skyraider driver to medevac pilot.
Rescue choppers were on the way in moments, but Major “Jump” Myers would be captured before they arrived. The short 2,500 foot strip was littered with bombs and debris, but Maj. Fisher was determined.
On his second attempt, he was able to skid to a stop before the end of the runway.
As the North Vietnamese closed in, he taxied to pick up Myers, pulled him into the cockpit and shoved the throttle forward.
Under heavy fire and with barely enough airspeed to fly, he lifted off at the end of the runway.
These are all remarkable men, members of an exclusive fraternity; just three examples of Congressional Medal of Honor recipients. As a nation, and certainly as members of the profession of arms, we revere them. They are the stuff of legends, larger than life … until you hear from them.
I’ve had the great privilege of speaking with several. Though their narratives are retold to inspire those of us currently serving, to hear them tell it, their stories of heroism are no more remarkable than what their buddies would have performed. I’m drawn to wonder, what made them extraordinary? What’s at the heart of such an experience? After much introspection, I settled on a couple elements.
Character is a term not easily defined. Most of us have a sense of its meaning, but when asked to put words to it, they all seem to fall short. We’re blessed in the Air Force to have had character defined for us in just three short phrases: Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence In All We Do.
Codified as our core values, these ideals succinctly exemplify the character for which we strive.
The Medal of Honor recipients described above are men of character. They lived their lives such that when circumstances called for conspicuous heroism, their character was sufficient to fulfill that request.
Not all people aspire to such a standard; I’m convinced among those that willingly serve their countries, the percentage is much higher. Still, there are many more men and women of character than there are Medals of Honor. There’s an element missing.
Chance is that inexplicable factor at the confluence of character and the timeline of a person’s life. While many would have willingly placed their lives on the line just as Levitow did, chance is a fickle thing — he was the only one there who could. That’s not to downgrade his service or the extraordinary sacrifice he made, but it is to acknowledge the reality that the armed services have always been full of men and women of valor.
Some have the “benefit” of being in the right place at the right time.
Many of those circumstances require the ultimate sacrifice. Others continue to perform at the highest levels doing whatever their service requires of them.
Throughout the ages, people have sought to control the outcome of chance. Nobody has yet succeeded — chance is its own master. While chance provides no advance warning, character needs none. It’s always ready. It’s who you are. More importantly, it’s who the people around you are.
The next day you’re on the job, consider your coworkers. You may be comfortable with their day-to-day persona and miss the fact that given the right circumstances, they could be central figure in a potential new story of heroism.
At that point, chance will have voted, and the outcome will depend on character.
This is precisely why we teach it in Professional Military Education, talk about it at commander’s calls, and (hopefully) reinforce at every level.
It’s also the reason you should treat your fellow service members with dignity and respect. After all, they may be just a dice throw away from “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life, above and beyond the call of duty.”