For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity, at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty. These are the words that begin every Medal of Honor citation, our nation’s highest, and most prestigious military decoration. They are uncommon, but not as uncommon as the actions and sacrifice detailed in the narrative summaries of those awards.
Of the estimated 50 million Americans who have worn a military uniform, 3440 have received the Medal of Honor. The criteria for the award is steep and explicit, with nearly all sacrificing their lives in the actions that earn them. Their service is memorialized at military installations throughout the world. You can read of their bravery on walls, monuments, and headstones. Buildings, streets, ships, and forward operating bases bear their names in an attempt to honor, to inspire, and to remember. If you wear a uniform, you walk in the shadows of heroes, every day.
Yesterday, there were 71 living recipients. Today, there are 72.
In the early morning hours of March 4th 2002, a helicopter attempted a landing on a mountain peak high in the Arma range of southeastern Afghanistan. The mission was reconnaissance, but war has no regard for the plans of men. War is violent, war is chaotic, and war is unforgiving. As the helicopter touched down, it was engulfed in a hail of lead and rocket propelled grenades. The helicopter escaped, but one man remained. He was alone. He was isolated. He was surrounded.
Men and women join the military for many reasons, but they do not join with the desire to die. There will always be moments of uncertainty, fear, and hesitation. Moments when fear turns thoughts to your own safety, wellbeing, and survival. Every service issues a uniform, none of them issue courage. In those moments, where beliefs and resolve are tested, leadership illuminates the path.
On March 4th 2002, , Master Chief Special Warfare Operator, SEAL (Ret), Britt Slabinski chose to lead.
He lead his men back into the fight, into overwhelming odds and enemy fire superiority. There would be no element of surprise, there would be no tactical advantage. Despite the odds, despite the risk, he chose to lead. They assaulted trenches, bunkers, and hardened machine gun nests. They took the fight to the enemy until it reached the brink of their own destruction. They did not run, they did not hide, they fought.
Bravery is not motivated by fear, rage, hate, or the desire for awards and recognition. Bravery is motivated by love. Love for an ideal, for a country, for a teammate, and for a brother. It is not a certainty, it is a choice.
Master Chief Slabinski and his men, chose to be brave.
His actions, and his leadership are an example, not just to every Sailor, Soldier, Marine, and Airman, but to every American. His citation has earned its place among the other heroes who have received the Medal of Honor. It belongs, not just on the walls of every military installation, but on the walls of every home in America. His actions serve as a beacon, as a reminder of who we can become, and what we can accomplish when we challenge the abyss, instead of running from it.