The Need to Say Thanks

The White House announced Tuesday that President Barack Obama will award the Medal of Honor to 1st Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing on September 15.

Despite being hopelessly outnumbered and under constant artillery bombardment, Lt. Cushing’s small force stood their ground against Pickett’s Charge during the Battle of Gettysburg. After being wounded twice, Cushing was barely able to continue whispering orders to First Sergeant Frederick Fuger, who held him up until another shot killed Cushing instantly. It was July 3, 1863. Only a century and a half ago.

President Obama will award the medal in a ceremony on Sept. 15. In the same ceremony, the president will honor two Vietnam War soldiers — Army Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie G. Adkins and Army Spc. Donald P. Sloat.

Sloat, of Coweta, Oklahoma, was killed in action in Vietnam on Jan. 17, 1970, at age 20. He picked up a live grenade and covered it with his own body to save his fellows. Adkins ran wounded through enemy fire to drag wounded comrades to safety.

There is an obvious question here. Why go through all this pomp — especially for a soldier who died 151 years ago?

The answer is he doesn’t need it. We do. The truly heroic never think of themselves as heroes.

John “Doc” Bradley was a Navy Corpsman who “just jumped in to lend a hand” in WWII. For his lending a hand, he was awarded the Navy Cross, a Purple Heart, a Combat Action Ribbon, a Presidential Unit Citation, an America Campaign Medal, an Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal and a World War II Victory Medal.

In the one interview he ever gave, Bradley said, “People refer to us as heroes — I personally don’t look at it that way. I just think that I happened to be at a certain place at a certain time and anybody on that island could have been in there — and we certainly weren’t heroes — and I speak for the rest of them as well. That’s the way they thought of themselves also.”

Bradley lent his hand as one of the Marines who raised the flag on Mt. Suribachi on “that island” — Iwo Jima. In a letter to his parents, Bradley wrote, “I was with the victorious Co. E. 2nd. Batt 28th Marines who reached the top of Mt. Suribachi first. I had a little to do with raising the American flag and it was the happiest moment of my life.”

Heroes don’t want or need the honor. It’s we who need to stop, think and be grateful.

The same year that Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing was killed defending the Union, President Abraham Lincoln — in middle of the Civil War — issued a proclamation establishing Thanksgiving as a legal holiday. In his proclamation, Lincoln said, “To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come … the ever watchful providence of Almighty G-d.” … Lincoln went on to ask Americans to “fervently implore the interposition of the Alm-ghty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”

We don’t have to wait for November. Let us take this opportunity to thank the White House for righting a wrong. And let us honor the memory of 1st Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing — along with the heroes of all battles who fought for us to be free.

And let us not forget all those others who put their lives on the line for others — heroes sung and unsung. Whether those heroes fought on the battlefield, or the city streets, or in burning buildings … or perhaps went hungry so that another might eat … or gave an encouraging word when it was needed. And let us now praise “ordinary” people who rose to the occasion with extraordinary chessed. We owe them all.

A Jew’s first words on rising are Modeh ani — a prayer of thanks for returning our souls upon awakening. Modeh ani also means “I admit” — it is an acknowledgment of obligation. To give thanks is to admit that we are indebted.

Gratitude is perhaps the greatest of virtues. Certainly ingratitude is one of the greatest of sins. The Ramban says that when Adam said, “The Woman You gave me, she gave me the fruit and I ate,” he was ungrateful.

We carry on this same grave sin when we take our neighbors and friends, our spouses and our parents — and our heroes — for granted. If we are ungrateful to them, we will also be ungrateful to G-d.

Have you said, “Thank you,” today?