Saturday, April 2, 2011

On Bravery and Valor


I recently had a discussion of sorts with an acquaintance about the concept of bravery.

She said: "I don't know how brave I am. Its a word people use to describe me that I never feel fits properly. I make choices out of necessity based on the options as laid out before me. I don't have a history of making the best ones but I always try to make the best of whatever is set in my path. I was scared shitless, as I said, my choice was made based on sheer terror. I was also terrified of the choice I made. I am not sure how one is brave when they are so scared."

My response is intermingled with the rest of this essay. I felt the topic warranted a little more attention.

First of all, nobody who is truly brave sees themselves as brave. It is only through the eyes of others that we may catch a glimpse of how brave we may or may not be. So if somebody thinks you are brave, you are. If you walk around with bravado oozing out of your pores, you are probably not. We call that narcisism and it requires a visit to a shrink.

Bravery is not fearlessness. It is having the courage to act, to go forward, to stand up, to do what is right and necessary DESPITE being "scared shitless".

Somebody who takes a risk in the absence of fear is either a fool or an idiot. Somebody who recognizes the risk and fears the situation, takes all the mitigating measures possible, and still does what needs to be done with all the fear and all the remaining risk... that is bravery.

For some of us, bravery is just getting up in the morning and going to work. For others, it is jumping out of a plane into a wildfire during Santa Anna winds. The situation that causes the fear, the risk, etc varies and is dependent upon perspective and subjective viewpoints. But bravery itself is not subjective. Where there is fear and perceived risk, acting in spite of it is bravery, pure and simple.

I have a friend who has seen things in her life that most people cannot imagine anybody going through and remaining sane. She has done three combat tours in Iraq. Most people would have cried "uncle" after experiencing the things she did during her first tour. And yet she valiantly returned twice more, despite fear, nightmares, etc.

I knew a young lady (this was some years ago, so she may not be all that young anymore) who was almost gang-raped on her way home from work one night. If it weren't for some quick-acting bystanders who happened to walk by and thwart the rapists, she may have been raped or killed. She suffered PTSD and even some agoraphobia afterward. Just leaving her house and returning to work was took an effort of will. Some of us need the same amount of will just to make it to the office to deal with a boring meeting. Is her simple act of going to work any less brave than a Soldier who charges a machine gun nest?

Speaking of machine gun nests, my great-uncle Henry earned 2 Bronze Stars for valor (and 2 purple hearts) for doing just that in WWII, twice. The second time resulted in his barely surviving the numerous bullets that ripped through his abdomen. The first time could be chalked up to foolishness. But I am more than sure that the fear pumping through him the second time would have frozen most people in their tracks. Instead, he charged and took out the machine gunners and saved his platoon.

A veteran, former soldier, who witnessed a rocket attack maim or kill his fellow soldiers in Iraq gets jumpy at a car backfiring. Thunderstorms bring flashes and bangs that send his mind back to that incident. Still, he manages to walk outside and roll-up the car windows despite the urge to hide under his bed until the barrage ceases. To him, that thunder and lightning is a replay of incoming. For most people, it is just another storm. Who does that make brave: the "normal guy" who experiences "just another storm" or the guy who is fighting not to relive a rocket attack, the one who is scared out of his gourd? My vote is for dude number two.

Some people think I am brave. Hell, I even have medals that claim it. I still hold that I am not. I just do what I need to do to survive and to keep my soldiers as safe as possible. Still, to some people, my returning to Iraq for this 4th tour is an act of obscene bravery. I hold that I am just another crazy war vet who doesn't know any better. I have somehow managed to, thusfar, avoid being shot or injured or killed. Now, if I were like my father's neighbor's son, that would be a different story.

Partick's son had his foot partially blown off by an IED. He could have taken a medical discharge and gotten out of the Army. Instead, he went into a commissioning program and is soon headed to Iraq or Afghanistan as an officer to continue the fight. Wounded in action and considered to have done more than his country could ask of him, he decides that he has more to give. If it were me, I don't know if I'd make the same decision.

My brother took a brave step a few years ago. He was in a job making pretty good money. But he decided to quit work, live off of his wife's salary alone, and go back to college and finish his degree. After that, he decided to become a father and his wife decided to become a full-time mother. Now they have two wonderful sons. Money is tight, or at least tighter than they were used to just a few years ago. Deciding to leave that comfort zone and step forward to do something new and bold like becoming a parent takes bravery.

Bravery is any time somebody leaves the relative comfort of the known in order to take a risk and step into less comfortable realm of the uncertain. Growth requires change. Change means leaving the comfort zone and taking a chance. It means trying new things. It means risking what you have hoping to have something greater. The wonderful thing is that growth is great. New experience is what life is all about. It one of the things that can make a moment extraordinary and wonderful. Without it, you are merely content with existence instead of living happily.

But you have to take that risk. You have to be brave. You have to be willing to risk that comfortable spot for the extraordinary. You have to be willing to accept the consequences and acknowledge that sometimes, you know, bad things are going to happen. Many times they will happen whether you do something or not. So you may as well be brave, put down that remote control, and go out and live.

So, as you can see, bravery is bravery. It isn't about being fearless. It isn't about conquering fear. It is about deciding and acting DESPITE fear. The circumstances that make it so are subjective. But they matter only to the brave, not to others. So, tell me... on second thought, tell yourself... are you brave?