Monday, November 11, 2013

Veterans Day: Obituary for a 'common man'

Posted By on Mon, Nov 11, 2013 at 7:16 AM

click to enlarge MEDAL OF HONOR: Awarded to John Hawk.
  • MEDAL OF HONOR: Awarded to John Hawk.
Media are full of Veterans Day statements and tributes today. A coincidental article struck me.

It was the obituary for John Hawk of Bremerton, Wash., who was awarded the Medal of Honor for uncommon valor during the Allied slog through Normandy. While wounded, he served as a human guidepost for artillery fire to take out German tanks. He was credited with a critical role in preventing a German breakout from the Falaise pocket and the capture of 500 German troops. He was wounded three more times before the war ended. Said the New York Times obituary:

Mr. Hawk had been in so many firefights that when he was told he would receive the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest award for valor, he had no idea why.

“I am a common man who did the best I could in the time and place I found myself,” he told The Chicago Tribune at a gathering of Medal of Honor recipients in Chicago in 1990.

“I was home on R and R and had been wounded four different times when I got a phone call saying they were considering me for the Medal of Honor. I said, ‘Medal of Honor? For when? For what day? What place? What time? Are you sure you mean me?’ You see, none of us consider ourselves heroes.”

Hawk became an elementary school principal. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that generations of students and parents knew little of his wartime exploits. I was a member of the post-war baby boom and grew up in a neighborhood with kids in every house and war veterans at the head of seemingly every one of them. Both my parents served with the Army overseas in World War II. There were heroes and commandoes and stateside desk jockeys of every description in Our Town. But typical, I think, was the father of one of my best friends. Until he died and a full obituary appeared in the local paper, I didn't know he was a paratrooper and battalion commander with a Purple Heart and Silver Stars whose battle record included North Africa, Sicily, Normandy, Holland and the final push into Germany. To me, he was a lawyer and a dad.

The universality of service, in a way, made it common and almost unremarkable among the men and women resuming civilian lives. This didn't diminish the appreciation of their military service or reduce the awe at the exploits of the uncommon among them. I still recall the reverent annual service at my high school, an age not much given to reverence, before the memorial with the chiseled names of alumni who had fallen in World War II. But I sometimes wonder if we've ratcheted up our Veterans Day statements and observances in part because of guilt that so many fewer — volunteers all — are doing the work for so many. I wonder how the volunteer service affects our feelings about decisions to commit them to battle. And I wonder, too, how carefully we consider if we've honored them enough — through medical care, readjustment to stateside life and other help — on the other 364 days in the year.

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