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Got Courage?

  • Published
  • By Col. Kirk Davies
  • 18th Wing Staff Judge Advocate
You may not have met Technical Sergeant Stephen McGrath, but he works in the Explosive Ordnance Disposal shop at Kadena Air Base.

On Nov. 18, 2007 Sergeant McGrath was on a deployment in Iraq when an enemy force engaged him and a platoon of soldiers with direct small arms fire. He responded admirably under the pressure of this intense, life-threatening situation and as a result he received the Air Force Combat Action Medal.

The citation accompanying the medal states, "Tech. Sgt. McGrath's tactical fortitude and great courage ensured optimum shielding of coalition forces resulting in no injuries during the fight against the enemy."

How did Sergeant McGrath muster this "great courage" to protect the soldiers he was with? Do you have courage? Would you have responded the same way? Can you be a courageous person, even if you've never been in combat?

One broad description of courage says: "Courage is what makes someone capable of facing extreme danger and difficulty without retreating. It implies not only bravery...but the ability to endure in times of adversity."

From my perspective, there are two kinds of courage: physical and moral.

As Airmen, we're all expected to have both physical and moral courage because, like Sergeant McGrath, we're all expected to deploy to dangerous places to defend our nation's interests. Fighting a war requires both kinds of courage. But, on a day-to-day basis, in garrison, most of us face more difficult moral decisions than tough physical challenges.

It's ironic, then, that, as Mark Twain observed, "physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare."

I was raised on a cattle ranch in the western United States and so I identify with John Wayne's statement that "courage is being scared to death... and saddling up anyway."

"Saddling up" is a cowboy's term for making a decision, or taking action, rather than being physically or emotionally paralyzed by a hard problem. It's important not to confuse courage with sheer physical strength. A person with courage has a strong internal compass and the fortitude to act on his or her beliefs.

One scholar emphasized this when he said, "true courage is not the brutal force of vulgar heroes, but the firm resolve of virtue and reason."

According to the Airman's Creed, we all aspire to be "faithful to...a legacy of valor." Carl Sandburg said, "Valor is a gift. Those having it never know for sure if they have it till the test comes. And those having it in one test never know for sure if they will have it when the next test comes."

Sergeant McGrath surely passed that test. But he didn't miraculously become courageous by just that one heroic act. I imagine he developed courage by a lifetime of making good choices every day.

Aristotle said, "Moral excellence comes about as a result of habit. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts."

If we want to have courage, we must do courageous acts, things like: resisting peer pressure to drink underage or pencil whip a record; obeying the law by observing simple traffic rules; and giving an honest day's work for each day you are paid. Over time we will build a habit of making small, courageous decisions.

And regardless of the challenge that ultimately comes our way, we, like Sergeant McGrath, will surely be Airmen who leave our families and our nation an honorable legacy of "great courage."