"Parents are a kid’s first teachers. That was true in my case too."
I don’t remember my dad, but he was my hero. Dad was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. By the time he was shot down trying to rescue 11 wounded soldiers in the heat of battle, he was the most decorated Marine in the Vietnam War. My first memory is standing on a parade ground in Washington, DC, holding a general’s gloved hand while my mother was presented with my father’s medals.
Those medals hung on the wall of our small Memphis home like a shrine, a constant reminder that true patriotism isn’t showy. It’s sacrificial.
Dad taught me that the privilege of being an American comes with the duty not to leave your fellow Americans behind. You might not be able to save them, but it’s your moral obligation to try.
I was an adult before I understood that my mom deserved a medal too. Mom was the gentlest of souls, with the truest moral compass of anyone I’ve ever known, and she was also a casualty of war. That might not have been obvious to strangers, but it was very clear to me. Left to raise two little girls on her own, she was barely putting one foot in front of the other most of the time.
Yet it was Mom who marched alone across the street alone to confront the belligerent father of the neighborhood bully—not because of what the bully had done to her kid, but because of what he’d done to someone else’s kid, the “different” kid, the most vulnerable kid on our street.
Mom taught me to stand up for what’s right and to stick up for people who can’t stick up for themselves. She taught me that your moral compass is true only when you’re willing to follow it to uncomfortable places, even if you’re going it alone.
After Dad was killed in action, Mom—a Protestant, with ministers on both sides of her family— took my sister and me to Mass every Sunday and sent us to 12 years of Catholic school. She told us that the one thing she could do for Dad was to give us the gift of his faith.
So you can bet I was paying attention in school when I was taught to love my neighbor as myself, when I heard the Beatitudes, when I read, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
Those lessons made sense to me, and they made an indelible impression. I’d seen them in action.