Memorial Day: A Salute to Heroes

by May 30, 2011Blog

Today’s blog post is not about business, but about the heroes whose actions allow us to live and work freely.

The story of two heroes begins six years ago, in the US Army headquarters in a small town in Germany. A young soldier was assigned the duty of sitting at the reception desk, greeting visitors as they arrived. It was a small town so it was rare to have visitors. He sat quietly, reading the newspaper or a book, day after day.

One day his solitude was interrupted when an old woman walked into the building. She stood quietly in front of his desk waiting for him to acknowledge her. When he looked up, she said haltingly in very broken English, “My boyfriend is dead”.

Not quite sure why she was telling him this, the soldier expressed his sympathy and waited. Lifting an old, worn and heavy briefcase onto the desk  she continued, “He wanted me to bring this here”

The soldier took the briefcase and thanked her politely. He started to place it on the floor, planning to put it in the trash as soon as she left, but the old woman did not move. It was clear she expected him to open the briefcase and look inside.

To be polite he opened it and began to shuffle through the papers, pretending to be interested. He intended to toss all of the contents into the trash as soon as she was gone,  but something caught his eye. He began to read the details on faded documents inside the tattered briefcase.

What he found were the military records of an extraordinary soldier. During his career Technical Sergeant, Leonard Wolf, US Air Force Retired, had earned The Silver Star, The Distinguished Flying Cross, The Air Medal with Seven Oak Clusters, and not one, but two Purple Hearts.

The soldier knew SMSGT Leonard Wolf deserved to be buried in a hero’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery. The problem was how to get him there.  If SMGT Wolf had died while in the Air Force, the government would have shipped his body home. But at 84, he was long past his days in the military. With a German girlfriend and no immediate family to pay the expenses or make arrangements with the military, there didn’t seem to be any way to send him home.

The soldier had two choices. He could have done the easy thing and explained to the old woman there was nothing he could do.  Or he could do the right thing and find a way to send SMSGT Wolf home. He chose the latter. On his day off he went with the old woman to her home.  He sorted through documents, records, and scraps of paper until he found contact information for some of the Sergeant’s family in the US. It took a few days, but he connected with one of Leonard’s nephews and convinced him to come to Germany, sort through the red tape and pay the expense required to bring his uncle home.

Six years ago, as I tossed a handful of dirt on my Uncle Lenny’s grave and listened to the 21 gun salute he had earned I knew there were two heroes being honored that day. The first was my Uncle Lenny whose extraordinary military service changed the lives of so many people. The second was a young soldier whose name I will never know. When given a choice he made a decision to do the right thing instead of the easy thing. His tenacity made is possible for us to honor my uncle properly.

As we celebrate Memorial Day to honor the soldiers who died or were injured in battle we should remember the other heroes as well. We should honor the ordinary people who make choices every day to do the right thing instead of the easy thing. We should honor them with our actions and our words.

Happy Memorial Day.