A Lesson in Courage

Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I’ll try again tomorrow.”       ― Mary Anne Radmacher

Don’t you hate it when you are feeling really good about yourself and then a thought enters your mind that takes you down a notch or two? Well, that’s happened to me more than once, but one instance stands out that caused a serious “aha” moment and reframing for me of what courage is all about.

In 2003 I had the privilege to lead a Marine battalion in combat during the initial phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom. During our 450 mile fight to Baghdad, we lost a young Marine named Lance Corporal Chad Bales. As customary I sent a letters of condolence and support to Chad’s family back home in Texas with a silent promise to visit them upon returning home. Months later, and after returning back to our base in Southern California, I received word that Chad’s high school was going to dedicate an area of remembrance for him in front of the school. I was asked to attend and speak at the ceremony and it would be the first time I would meet Chad’s family.

As the date of the ceremony drew closer I coordinated with Chad’s mother and step-father on the logistics of my visit. We agreed to meet at the airport about 50 miles from Chad’s home town in West Texas. I admit there was some apprehension in meeting Chad’s family. You just never know what emotions to expect from yourself or from the family in a situation like that. I was the first person from Chad’s unit to visit them and I was the Battalion Commander at that.  I remembered how much tougher it must have been for the Casualty Assistance Officer to deliver the news of Chad’s death in person. I thought, if they had the courage to make that visit, I could find the courage to meet and embrace Chad’s family.

I arrived the day before the ceremony and Chad’s mom and step-father met me at the airport and they were so very gracious and kind.  They insisted that I join them for dinner in their home that evening. It was both a relief and a comfort to finally meet them in person. I picked up my rental car and Chad’s step-father rode with me. While driving down the open West Texas road our small chat turned to plans for the ceremony the next day. Everything seemed to be in order. Then he said something that brought back some of that initial apprehension I felt before arriving. He said they had some other family members who would be at their house for dinner that night. He wanted to let me know that Chad’s grandmother would be there and she was having a hard time with Chad’s death and they weren’t sure what she would say when I met her. I appreciated the heads up, but my mind immediately turned to the different scenarios that could result from meeting Chad’s grandmother. The need for courage again entered my mind, my prayers, and my plans.

We arrived at their house and I met the rest of the family in the kitchen. Chad’s Grandmother shook my hand with few words exchanged. Would this be all the interaction I would have with her? Somehow I didn’t think so! Chad’s mother took me to a long hallway in their home that served as a memorial to her son. The walls were lined all the way down the hallway with framed condolence letters from the President and other notable officials, photos and items from Chad’s Marine Corps service. I remember there was a picture of Chad’s high school student body spelling out the letters of his name on their football field. In the hallway I took the opportunity to provide Chad’s mother with a few mementos from Iraq and also gave her one of Chad’s dog tags that was removed by his platoon commander when he died. Presenting Chad’s dog tag with the dust of Iraq still in the crevices was an emotional moment for both of us.  She told me to take all the time I wanted to look at the items in the hallway.

After a few minutes of being alone in the hallway, out of the corner of my eye I saw some movement at the other end. I turned and saw Chad’s Grandmother coming down the hall toward me. I thought, “Here we go”, and called upon my reserve of courage to get me through the conversation I thought was coming. As we came face to face she said, “I just want to know one thing”. I indicated my readiness to provide an answer, and then she said, “Did he suffer?”. I was surprised by the simplicity of the question. This was a question I could easily answer. Chad did not suffer. His death was near instantaneous but he did receive heroic life-saving efforts from his fellow Marines and Navy Corpsmen. After my reply and with a growing tear in the corner of my eye, she simply said, “OK” and turned to walk back down the hallway to the kitchen.  That was it. As I watched her walk away I started to feel good about myself and the way I summoned the courage to interact with Chad’s family, and especially his grandmother. I remember thinking, what great courage I displayed!

But then it hit me. How selfish of me to think finding the courage to get through this single situation was a great accomplishment! I suddenly realized that real courage is the kind that Chad’s family has to muster each and every day when they again realize he is not there to love, hold and talk to. The continuous courage required to face each day while missing their genuine American hero is something we should all honor and celebrate. Every day is their Memorial Day. God bless the Gold Star families that have lost family members in service to our great country. They continue to pay the price of freedom each day.

This lesson in courage was paid for by the sacrifice of Lance Corporal Chad Bales and his wonderfully patriotic and proud family. I am humbled by this lesson and continue to think about it when situations arise that call for courage and conviction.

God speed and Happy Memorial Day Chad!

Semper Fidelis (Always Faithful),

Bob Weinkle

LtCol, USMC (Ret.)

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