What is a hero?

Is a hero “faster than a speeding bullet?” Is a hero “more powerful than a locomotive?” Is a hero “able to leap tall buildings in a single bound?” The answer is yes when discussing fictitious heroes; however, we are not. I want to talk about real life heroes.

What is a hero?

According to Merriam-Webster, a hero is defined as a person who is admired for great or brave acts or fine qualities.

When I think of heroes, I immediately think of firemen. I will always have the images of the firemen on 9/11 etched into my memory. I see them running toward the burning buildings as thousands of others fled the opposite way.

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When I think of heroes, I think of police officers, who are only a traffic stop away from not going home to their families each night.

When I think of heroes, I think of Soldiers. While I don’t think of every Soldier as a hero, we certainly have our fair share.

Command Sergeant Major (CSM) Bennie Adkins of Opelika is a hero and is very close to receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Command Sergeant Major (CSM) Bennie Adkins of Opelika is a hero and is very close to receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor. 

Please read CSM Adkins’ story here.

I think of those who served during WWII to save our way of life. I think of those who served so admirably in the largely unforgotten Korean War. I think of those who served in the unpopular Vietnam War with little or no support back home. And today, I think of those men and women who voluntarily serve so others don’t have to serve involuntarily.

“A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.” Christopher Reeve

Reeve played Superman in four movies, so he knows a thing or two about being a hero. He did, however, star in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, so it’s his judgment that I question.

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The severe weather this past week brought out its share of heroes.

In Tuscaloosa, 21 year old student-athlete John Servati died a hero. While seeking shelter in a basement with his girlfriend, a wall began to collapse. He was able to hold up the wall just long enough for his girlfriend to escape. Seconds later, he was crushed beneath the crumbled wall.

A friend and Alabama teammate of Servati tweeted that his mother wished only for two things: That her son would swim at the University of Alabama and that someday he would die a hero. John Servati fulfilled his mom’s wishes.

Photo courtesy of the University of Alabama via Facebook

Photo courtesy of the University of Alabama via Facebook

In Mississippi, Ruth Bennett died clutching the last child left at her daycare center as a tornado wiped the building off its foundation. A firefighter who came upon the body gently pulled the four year old from her arms.

Bennett was among at least 35 people killed in a two-day outbreak of tornadoes and other violent weather that destroyed homes from the Midwest to the Deep South. The child, whose name was not released, was alive when she was pulled from Bennett’s arms and was taken to a hospital. Her condition was not known. UPDATE: She is improving! Read the story here.

Ruth Bennett had a passion for caring for kids. In the end, she gave her life so that 4 year old 4 year old Ashtyn Rose Mitchell could live.

Ruth Bennett had a passion for caring for kids. In the end, she gave her life so that 4 year old 4 year old Ashtyn Rose Mitchell could live.

Daniel Wassom, husband and father of two, was huddled in a hallway of his Arkansas home during the storm with his wife, daughters, and a neighbor. At the height of the tornado, a large piece of lumber crashed toward the family. Wassom, who served in the Air Force, shielded five year old Lorelei, taking the brunt of the fatal blow to his neck. Lorelei suffered a shoulder injury and was hospitalized.

Wassom, a father of two daughters — Lorelei, 5, and Sydney, 7 — died Sunday sheltering his family from the tornado. Photo courtesy of the Wassom family.

Wassom, a father of two daughters — Lorelei, 5, and Sydney, 7 — died Sunday sheltering his family from the tornado. Photo courtesy of the Wassom family.

Our parents should be a hero to each of us, respectively.

My dad was a hero to me. In fact, he might as well have been Superman, without the speed, the power, or leaping ability. My dad was a juvenile diabetic who lost his eyesight in his twenties. In spite of his inability to see, he still went to work every day, setting a great example for my brother and me. Our hero died at 35 but lives in our hearts forever.

For many of us, athletes are our heroes. Bo Jackson was and is a hero to me. Not only was he one of the greatest athletes the world had ever seen, but, like me, he stuttered. As a child, I knew very few people who were afflicted with stuttering. Bo could’ve simply let his athleticism do the talking, pardon the pun, but he had a voice, and he used it.

Bo knows.

Bo knows.

Today’s definition of a hero is perhaps subjective, but, whether we know it or not, rest assured, there are many heroes among us. More than likely, there is a hero in you.

“A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Jody Fuller is a comic, speaker, writer and soldier. He can be reached at jody@jodyfuller.com. For more information, please visit http://www.jodyfuller.com.

Riding in a windowless Humvee on a cold, wet, and snowy morning in Iraq in Feb 2004.

Riding in a windowless Humvee on a cold, wet, and snowy morning in Iraq in Feb 2004.

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Veterans Day: A Day of Celebration

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Last year, I took a character strengths survey for the Army. It is a 240 item, scientifically validated, questionnaire that provides a rank order of an adult’s 24 character strengths.

While the ranking of some of the character strengths left me baffled, the top character strength did not. Topping the list for me was gratitude.

Take your own survey now. You’ll find it interesting.

Gratefulness is November’s character trait for Opelika, a City of Character.

I have so much to be grateful for, but with Veterans Day upon us, I want to focus on our veterans, for whom I give thanks to every day.

Recently, I told a forty something year old friend of mine that had the U.S. not defeated the Axis powers in WWII, we’d all be speaking German. His reply was classic. “Not me. I can’t speak German.”

Last Sunday, I had the honor of attending the birthday party of 90 year old Husky Kirkwood, a Navy pilot during WWII. Not only was it an honor due to his rightful place in The Greatest Generation but also because according to him, it wasn’t a “phonebook crowd.” He didn’t just scroll through the phonebook looking for folks to invite; he only invited select personnel. Like I said, it was an honor.

Husky in his new birthday suit.

Husky in his new birthday suit. I wore a Navy shirt in his honor, which was tough for an Army guy.

This is the P2V5F, one of the planes Husky flew in the Navy.

This is the P2V5F, one of the planes Husky flew in the Navy.

As one can imagine, the “phonebook crowd” drives a lot of Buicks. I believe there were more Buicks at Husky’s house that day, per capita, than anywhere else in America.

Also, as you can imagine, the “phonebook crowd” consisted of many Veterans.

I know there were multiple WWII Veterans in attendance, as well as those from Vietnam. There was at least one from Desert Storm and even a couple of us from Iraq and Afghanistan.

It’s ironic that I didn’t mention the Korean War, which sadly is referred to as The Forgotten War; however, I didn’t forget about it and neither should you. I assume some of the guys served in Korea but it never came up in conversation. Perhaps they’ve tried to forget and for good reason. War is hell and Korea ranks right up there near the top.

While many people see Veterans Day as a sad day, I do not. I see it as a celebration for all who have served; those for whom deserve our unwavering gratitude.

It shouldn’t be confused with Memorial Day; Veterans Day celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans, while Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving.

I missed out on a well-paying Veterans Day speaking engagement in California this year, because I stood my ground. I told the event planner that I could speak about anything but to expect a few laughs along the way, because Veterans Day shouldn’t be a somber day; it should be a day of celebration. Apparently that was too much for him to handle, but I’m ok with that and that’s what ultimately counts. You got to stand for something.

But for many, the celebration will soon be ending. According to the VA, we are losing 800-1000 WWII veterans each and every day, so the time to show your gratitude is now.

In recent months, many of my friends from around the country have been showering veterans with birthday cards.

My friend from Fairhope told me about her uncle who fought in WWII. He is 91 years old and blind. His wife died 15 years ago and all he has left is my friend and her mom.

As of Monday, he’d received 26 birthday cards and was deeply moved and brought to tears by the love and gratitude sent his way. He feels special knowing that he is not forgetten.

Uncle Bill message

It doesn’t have to be a holiday for you to reach out to veterans.

We are also losing Korean War veterans at an alarming rate.

Vietnam veterans were loathed by many during their era, so the time to sincerely thank them for answering their nation’s call for a very unpopular war is now.

I deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom three times, each time coming home to a bigger celebration. Sadly, the guys from Vietnam were spat upon and advised not to wear their uniform upon their return. The time to thank them and welcome them home is now.

I’m not forgetting about my generation of vets, I just ask that you focus on the older ones first. We plan on being around for a while, but if you see a younger veteran who is struggling, please reach out to him or her.

I encourage you to do something special this Veterans Day weekend. Make a phone call or two. Send a card. Drop by to see a friend. Visit your local veterans home. Bake some cookies. Who doesn’t like cookies?

I plan of taking a veteran or two to lunch on Monday. Heck, I might even drive them in style. Does anyone have a Buick I can borrow?

My "grandpa" is a WWII veteran and pinned on my lieutenant bars at Ft. Benning in Jan 2003. He's not really my grandpa but that's what I call him.

My “grandpa” is a WWII veteran and pinned on my lieutenant bars at Ft. Benning in Jan 2003. He’s not really my grandpa but that’s what I call him. He has a Buick.

Jody Fuller is a comic, speaker, writer and soldier. He can be reached at jody@jodyfuller.com. For more information, please visit http://www.jodyfuller.com.

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Freedom isn’t free

Freedom isn’t free

Penland Wall edit

I took this photo at the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor in 2012.

I took this photo at the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor in 2012.

Memorial Day weekend is upon is. The kids are out of school. It’s time to fire up the grill. It’s time to head to the pool, lake, or beach. It’s time to party with family and friends. It’s the beginning of the summer. That’s what Memorial Day is all about, right?

Wrong.

Memorial Day is a federal holiday which occurs each year on the final Monday of May. It should not be confused with Veterans Day. Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving, whereas Veterans Day celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans, living or dead.

I took this pic at the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.Not taking the time to reflect upon the fallen service member and his or her sacrifices on Memorial Day is akin to not taking the time to reflect upon Jesus Christ and his sacrifice at Easter.

Unlike other holidays, we don’t receive tangible gifts on Memorial Day; however, thanks to all of the brave men and women who paid the ultimate sacrifice, we do receive the intangible gift of freedom.

One of those brave warriors was Sergeant First Class (SFC) Raymond D. Penland.

Penland 2

I first learned about SFC Penland by way of his son and my dear friend, Opelika native and resident, Steve Penland.
Raymond D. Penland was born July 5, 1921, in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Although he started his senior year of high school, he never finished, but that wouldn’t prevent him from living a remarkable life.

He enlisted in the Army on Feb 23, 1940, at the age of 19.

Unfortunately, SFC Penland’s service record is largely unknown.

On July 12, 1973, there was a fire at the National Personnel Records Center, located just outside of St. Louis, that destroyed 80% of the records for U.S. Army personnel discharged over a nearly 50 year span from 1912 to 1960. Additionally, 75% of the records for U.S. Air Force personnel discharged from 1947 to 1964 were also destroyed.

None of the records that were destroyed in the fire had duplicate copies made, nor had they been copied to microfilm.

Regrettably, up to 18 million service records were destroyed leaving veterans and families alike looking for answers.

The family has no record of where Penland attended basic training, but older son, Raymond (Ray) C. Penland, through due diligence alone, has been able to obtain some of his father’s records.

After completing basic training, Penland was assigned to 2nd Infantry Division (ID) as a rifleman from 1940-42, which is significant to me, because I, too, was assigned to 2ID, albeit 61 years later.

Over the next few years, Penland’s stellar performance would allow him to rise up the ranks of 10th Infantry Regiment holding such positions as squad leader, platoon guide, and platoon sergeant.

Penland was part of the greatest generation and saw action in the European theater during World War II. While serving with 10th Infantry, he was awarded his first of two Purple Hearts for injuries sustained along the Moselle River in Northern France.

In 1946, Penland was assigned to recruiting duty in, of all places, Opelika, Alabama. His time here would be very productive.

Raymond D. Penland married Opelika native Sara H. May in Troup County, Georgia, on March 1, 1947.

Over the next few years, Ray and Steve would come along, respectively.

Also, while in Opelika, Penland would go on to earn his GED.

In 1949, SFC Penland returned to 10th Infantry where he reassumed his role as Platoon Sergeant.

He departed Ft. Benning, Georgia, for Korea in July of 1950, just weeks after the outbreak of the Korean War.

Due to the fire of 1973, the family has little knowledge of his duties in Korea, although they do know he was assigned to Company L, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division.

According to a letter from CPT McCaffrey, his Commanding Officer, on December 16, 1950, Penland departed the Company Headquarters with the Executive Officer and a driver in order to go to the rear for ammunition. During their return, they were ambushed by a group of North Korean soldiers, and, sadly, Sergeant First Class Raymond D. Penland was killed in action by machine gun fire.

His XO and driver were wounded in the attack.

His unit was evacuated by sea just three days later.

He was just 29 years old. He would leave behind a young wife, the mother of his two sons.

For his leadership and valor, SFC Penland was awarded two Purple Hearts, the American Defense Service Medal, the World War II Victory Medal, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Good Conduct Medal, the United Nations Service Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Korean Service Medal, the Korean Presidential Unit Citation, and the Republic of Korea War Service Medal.

The Purple Heart is a United States military decoration awarded in the name of the President to those who have been wounded or killed while serving on or after April 5, 1917 with the U.S. military.

The Purple Heart is a United States military decoration awarded in the name of the President to those who have been wounded or killed while serving on or after April 5, 1917 with the U.S. military.

The Purple Heart is a United States military decoration awarded in the name of the President to those who have been wounded or killed while serving on or after April 5, 1917 with the U.S. military.

He was most likely awarded additional medals including the Bronze Star. Unfortunately, that can’t be verified at this time due to the fire at the records center.

Records show that SFC Penland is buried in what is registered as United Nations Military Cemetery #2 in Hungnam, North Korea; however, there is no evidence of him actually being there. They were intentionally hidden so the enemy wouldn’t dig up the remains for their clothing. There are 48 other soldiers buried there with him. Furthermore, there are thousands of other U.S. servicemen still buried in North Korea.

In the early nineties, Ray, retired U.S. Navy, was stationed in Japan and went to Korea on assignment. His unit visited the U.N. base in P’anmunjom on the demilitarized zone. This is the closest any member of the Penland family has ever been to SFC Penland’s grave.

His name is inscribed on the Courts of the Missing at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. This Honolulu memorial is also known as “The Punchbowl.”

Penland Cemetery

I took these photos in Jan 2014.

Penland Wall edit

Korea has often been referred to as “The Forgotten War” because of the lack of public attention it received both during and after the war, but I can assure you that neither the Penland family nor the families of the more than 33,000 casualties from the Korean War have ever forgotten.

“I was 9 months old and my brother was almost 3 when my mother received the telegram. There’s never a day that goes by that I don’t think about him and wish that one day he can be brought back home and given a final resting place at Arlington National Cemetery,” said Steve.

Ray sums it up well, “Each memorial day I remind my friends that there are missing servicemen and women all over the world. They are in unmarked graves in cities, jungles, deserts, and at sea. As we celebrate our nation’s greatness, let us not forget those who gave their all for their country and may never come home again.”

So enjoy the freedom that this holiday allows. Enjoy the outdoor recreation, the barbeques, and the start of summer, but I encourage you to take a moment and reflect upon those men and women whose sacrifice paved the way for you to do so, because a true reflection of this sacred day clearly shows that freedom is not free.

kid with flag

This is what Memorial Day is really about.

Jody Fuller is a comic, speaker, writer and soldier. He is also a lifetime stutterer. He can be reached at jody@jodyfuller.com. For more information, please visit http://www.jodyfuller.com.

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