May 12, 2015

Book Review: "Choosing Courage"

 "Choosing Courage"
by Peter Collier
Artisan Books, 2015

The word 'hero' has been dumbed-down these days. Schoolchildren with perfect attendance are called heroes, as are those popular cartoonish Robert Downey Jr – Transformer movies. Computer-generated fiction? Let's be honest; while going to school regularly is a good thing, real heroes are the Marines fighting their way off the Iwo Jima beaches, or clearing Fallujah house-by-bloody-house.

Peter Collier's fine book “Choosing Courage” helps the reader understand today's hero. Collier takes the stories of Medal of Honor awardees from WW2, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and tries to find a common thread to their stories. At the same time, he intersperses the actions of a few brave civilians and compares them to see if they match those inspiring stories of the combat veterans – and he finds that thread.

While many Medal of Honor recipients are reticent of their fame, and prefer to phrase their actions as 'I was just doing my job,” a few have taken a more articulate view. Col Jack Jacobs, USA (ret) is one. Jacobs, awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in 1968 Vietnam, is a thoughtful man who explains how in the midst of battle, wounded in an ambush that killed many of his troops and with a piece of shrapnel in his eye, remembered the question posed by the Hebrew scholar Hillel of two thousand years ago “If not you, who? If not now, when?” Jacobs knew that if someone didn't take charge, the slaughter would continue, and if he was the only person capable of action, then he needed to get on with it. That's far cry from today, when people's first response to an emergency is to pull out their cellphone and make a video for TMZ or FB.

Eleven months later, Col Wesley Fox, USMC (ret) was leading a rifle company of Marines that was ambushed by a far larger force of North Vietnamese soldiers. Like Jacobs, Fox was wounded, as were all his platoon commanders. But training trumps fear, and as the young Marines stepped up to take charge, Fox had no time for fear as he worked to keep his Marines fighting. When the Marines were finally extricated, they'd suffered 70 Marines killed or wounded, but the NVA lost more than 100 killed.

There are civilian equivalents to combat, Collier writes, and provides two breathtaking examples. Jencie Fagan, a gym teacher, was putting up a volleyball net for her first-period class when she heard gunshots. Running down the hallway to where she thought the noise had come, she encountered students running in terror (and a teacher who locked herself in a classroom), Fagan saw a student with a handgun and slowly approached him. Talking soothingly to him, she stood in front of him so he would have to shoot her in order to shoot any other students. Fagan talked him into dropping the pistol and she then hugged him until the police arrived.

Of the many heroic stories coming from 9/11, “Choosing Courage” picks that of Rick Rescoria, a British native who joined the American Army and fought in 1965 Vietnam., earning a Silver Star at Ia Drang. Becoming an American citizen after the war, in 2001 he was the Director of Security for Morgan Stanley on 9/11. Due to the prior training he'd instituted, almost all of Morgan's 2,700 employees got out of the South Tower, however Rescoria was last seen going back into the building to be sure all of 'his' employees were out. The South Tower collapsed a few minutes later; Rescoria's body was never found.

That's what Peter Collier's “Choosing Courage” illustrates. Courage comes from within the individual, and in response to a crisis situation. No sane person looks for these situations, but as Jacobs says “I didn't want to look back years later and realize I could have done the right thing, but didn't.” It's really a simple question, Fagan realized later; which way will you run??

"Choosing Courage" is Highly Recommended!!

Choosing Courage

by Peter Collier
Artisan Books, 2015
ISBN # 978-1-57965-596-9