In America, as with most countries, we take great national pride in those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation. We call them heroes. Men and women, often rising from obscure corners of the country, who honor us with their courage, strength, and blood. They are the best of us. And they deserve to be remembered.
I’m writing these thoughts on Memorial Day, a day established shortly after the Civil War to honor those who had died in service to the Union. And it has persevered through the years as a memoriam to all who have fallen in service to America.
But it got me to thinking—who are these heroes? Shouldn’t we call them out by name? Who would I name as my personal hero?
And my thoughts quickly turned to a letter I received in March of 1989.
I Lived Among Heroes
It was the end of my third week in basic training. I remember that day because my platoon had just returned from a week-long bivouac in the freezing cold of Fort Dix, New Jersey.
I was glad to be back in the warm barracks.
The mail had just been handed out, something every soldier looked forward to, and one envelope had my name on it. I had gotten a handful of cards and letters in the weeks since I’d left home, but this letter was special.
It was from my grandfather. And he had not written a letter since his own service had ended in 1945.
Grandpa didn’t talk much about his time in the Navy, but we knew just enough to know this: it was not filled with an abundance of warm and fuzzy memories.
He had served in the Pacific theater of World War II aboard the USS Hamlin as a deck gunner. As a kid, I was always curious about his role in the war, but I always had the feeling it wasn’t something to bring up in casual conversation.
Until one day when I decided to break the silence.
I was riding with him in his old Ford Fairlane wagon. We were on our way back to the house, having gone into town to visit the post office. I wasn’t very old, probably 9 or 10 at the time, and after mustering some courage, I asked him, “Pa Pa, what did you do in the war?”
He paused for a moment—and then answered, “I lived among heroes.”
He didn’t elaborate much beyond that, except to say that the men he served with were the greatest of men, personal friends—and that he watched too many of them die.
I never saw my grandpa cry, not that day or any other. But I noticed that his eyes were wet as he watched the road. And in that moment I got a glimpse of what it meant to have honor.
Worthy of Our Honor
Eugene Kemp never talked about his own service. Only that of his shipmates. And his silence always spoke more to me than words ever could.
As I sat on my bunk and read that letter, tears began to fill my own eyes. During the past few weeks, I had wondered if I could hack it in the Army. But I knew in that moment that I would make it just fine—because my hero believed in me.
Grandpa fought many battles in his life, but he never complained. He made many sacrifices of his own aboard the Hamlin and throughout his life. And yet he never failed to remind his grandkids that “the Good Lord”—as he liked to say—is always with us.
And that was clearly enough for him.
It’s been more than five years since my grandfather passed away and I think about him often. Especially on this day when heroes and patriots are celebrated.
So my encouragement to you is this: name your heroes. Set the generalities aside and get specific about those who are worthy of your honor. Learn from them how to live with humility and grace. Understand how emulating them will make you a better person.
Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
To all the brave men and women who have laid down their lives for us, let us say thank you. You are our friends, our brothers and sisters, and our heroes.
And thank you, too, Grandpa. You are my greatest hero, both today and forever. I love you and I miss you. You inspire me to be a better man.
Because I, too, lived among heroes.