Saturday, June 8, 2013

Shoes of Humility and Honor -- Tony

Tony, at the U.S. Naval Academy
"Humility makes great men twice honorable." -- Benjamin Franklin

A mirror is a mysterious and deceptive thing. Bearing in mind Ben Franklin's observation, it would seem that humility prevents great and honorable men from having a clear view of the mirror's display.

Folklore and movies often depict the terrifying consequences of a single glance into a mirror.  Alice was plagued with Jabberwocks, Snow White was stalked by the Wicked Queen, and Frodo was hunted by the Eye of Sauron. Fictitious mirrors can foretell the destruction of individuals or entire societies.  They even have the power to capture the spirits of the departed, impeding their abilities to float along to a more peaceful realm.  But, in reality, mirrors are powerful, too.

Some of us examine every detail of ourselves, right down to individual pores, as we primp and priss, trying to disguise what nature did not perfect. Many of us avoid looking into a mirror at all costs, except for the minimum necessary. In particular, we dislike full-length reflections; that is, those that reveal who is standing in our shoes.

One thing is certain about mirrors. Each of us sees something different, even when we are examining the same image. Take my brother, Tony, for example, who is pictured above as a young man. When I look at his whole reflection, I see shoes occupied by an honorable man, gifted with intelligence, humor and immense courage. A single glance at his [still] enormous brown eyes reveals an uncommon depth of wisdom and compassion. Likely, he is uncomfortable with my description of his attributes, because he does not see the same reflection I see. His humility forbids it.

As with other first-born siblings, Tony always traveled in shoes that compelled him to over-achieve. The eldest of five children, he was a recipient of the Student Teacher Achievement Recognition (STAR) as a senior in high school. He was appointed to the United States Naval Academy, and later served his country for several years as a Navy Seal in southeast Asia. Yet, he does not boast about these outstanding accomplishments.

Even when considering his experiences as a Seal, Tony minimizes his own remarkable character. He recalls being with his partner for one harrowing covert operation.  Instead of attributing his fortitude in such dire circumstances to his own resolute nature, Tony credits his father.
It was a kind of an epiphany about the wisdom of some things my father had tried to teach me and the way he had tried to prepare me for life.

So, there we were, lying in six-foot high, thick, tough grass. It was raining and we were soaked from above and from the soggy ground beneath. Neither of us had eaten since the night before, we’d been too busy in circumstances that just did not allow a meal break. Neither of us had eaten a hot meal since before we deployed for this particular mission; and that had been more than a week before. Critters (I’m not sure what kind, other than they were probably quite unpleasant) were crawling on and over us. On top of it all, folks that wanted to do us harm (even unto death) were walking within 10 feet of us, looking for us.

At that point, I just had to put my face in the dirt to keep from laughing aloud. I was shaking with suppressed laughter. My partner gently grasped my ankle as if to say, “Are you alright? Please be quiet.” I’m sure he thought the stress had caused me to lose it completely.
Later, when "the bad guys gave up" looking for them, Tony explained his loss of composure to his comrade.
I was remembering something my old man told me. He was a f---ing prophet. He told me one time, when I was whining about some disciplinary action he’d taken, that I was going to be standing in a hole with mud to my ankles. Rain would be running down my back and I would be soaked and cold. I would not have eaten at all for a couple of days and not had any hot food for weeks. People all around would be trying to kill me. My friends would be complaining about how terrible things were. I’d be able to laugh and say, "You ought’a had to live for eighteen years with my old man!”
Ultimately, Tony lost his combat partner, whom he characterized as "the other half of me." The experience defies description.  Adjectives such as "horrid" and "tragic" are inadequate.  Then came the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates affects 30% of Vietnam-era veterans.

However, even someone who survived combat is susceptible to powerful psychological and emotional impacts when diagnosed with a chronic disease. Twenty years ago, at the age of 40, the news of Tony's type II diabetes forever altered the direction he would travel.  Like other newly-diagnosed patients, he had to confront the implications of a serious and frightening illness. As author Tracey Wilson writes in her article entitled The Emotional Impact of Diabetes, "It is totally life changing for those diagnosed. Eating becomes literally a matter of life and death . . . [this] is not just merely staying alive - it's trying to stay alive without ending up blind, on kidney dialysis, with severe nerve damage, or amputation, just to name a few." The National Institutes of Health also report that "Patients with chronic conditions often have to adjust their aspirations, lifestyle, and employment. Many grieve about their predicament before adjusting to it."

It is no surprise, then, that Tony's initial reaction to his diabetes mirrored those described above.  He grieved his previous lifestyle, and was forced to trudge a road littered with uncertainty.
The first and most dramatic thing I remember about being diagnosed as a diabetic was, "Holy crap! I have an incurable disease." It actually made me sit down and think about what that meant to me. I hated it. The very idea made me angry. In fact, it enraged me. I had already been through two years in Southeast Asia as a Navy Seal; been wounded; fought with and pretty much beat down PTSD – and then, there was this.

I have come to know myself well enough to know that kind of rage in me really means that I am afraid . . . I was afraid of what having an incurable disease meant for me in terms of lifestyle change. What long-term impact would it have on my family; my ability to work; my ability to enjoy my life?
In Tony's case, diabetes is thought to be a possible result of long-term exposure to Agent Orange, which contains the toxic chemical dioxin. As if the impact to his own health wasn't enough to bear, Tony also had good reason to agonize over the health of his then-young son. Grave conditions, some of which are known at birth, some of which are unknown until later in life, are among the lengthy list of associated disorders in offspring of veterans who served in the Vietnam theater, all discussed in Betty Mekdeci's article posted on The Vietnam Veterans of America website.

How does Tony explain his ability to stride past the adversity of diabetes and persevere with courage? In true form, he first credits his wife, Joan. "She's helped me alot. I love her so much," he told me once.  Then,  his unfailing wit compells him to add, "You ought’a had to live for eighteen years with my old man!"

It seems to me that Ben Franklin's wisdom is worth repeating. "Humility makes great men twice honorable." When Tony looks into the mirror, he does not see who is standing in his shoes.  But, others do. Certainly, I do. I will be borrowing the shoes of a great man.  I already know I cannot fill them, but, I'll proudly sling his tired, old boots over my shoulder and carry them for the next few miles. They will remind me that when the next step feels too difficult, when the road seems long, it's important to focus on honor and humility. In fact, I'll carry them twice.

Here's to the next mile!


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