Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Duty, Honor, Country...and Courage

In September I went to my high school reunion. And among all the faces I was delighted to see, one stood out crystalline bright. This is my story about him.

John Milstead was our golden boy. We had lots of smart people in our class. We had plenty of great athletes. We had any number of socially gifted people too. But the way I remember it, only one person had all three to an exceptional degree, and that was John.

Everyone loved John. His smile lit every room he entered. He was kind and friendly to everyone, popular or not. We expect that from adults, but high school kids rarely make the grade. John did.

John's dream was to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Everyone knows that West Point is harder to get into than the Ivies. You can't just be smart. You have to be athletic. You have to be a leader. You have to be authentically exceptional. And because that was truly who John was, he got in. Our class, from a suburban high school in California (before there was a "Silicon Valley"), had a future West Point cadet. And no one could have deserved it more.

But then, after graduation, disaster struck. When the news came out, it was devastating: John had been in a car accident and was gravely injured. I remember visiting him in the hospital he was transported to first. Naive and uncomprehending, I brought flowers. The John lying in a hospital bed, his brother by his side, was someone I couldn't recognize. At that moment, John simply wasn't there. I went back to my car shaken to the core, wondering whether he'd come back.

As the summer wore on, a group of us visited John on a pretty regular basis. His part of the shared hospital room was covered with pictures and mementos. His West Point acceptance notice took pride of place. I think we all knew he wouldn't get there, but it was too terrible a thought to hold. Instead, we focused on what John re-learned, day to day, starting from the beginning.

There was the day we brought him a board with letters. He'd been incredibly frustrated at being unable to communicate, and by using this board, he could spell out words. With characteristic determination, he spelled out sentences, conducted conversations.

There was the day we closed the hospital room door and stood him up. The nurses would have had our heads; it wasn't time yet. But John wanted to stand, so that was that. And stand he did. And then he walked. And one day he walked out the door and went home.

As we feared, John didn't make it to West Point. That is a tragedy of authentically national proportions. But that tragedy doesn't minimize in any way what John accomplished. John graduated from college, married, and had children. He now works in a YMCA with people who have various disabilities. I have absolutely no doubt that he is an incredible teacher and mentor, motivated, as I know he is, by the original values that pulled him to West Point and then pulled him out of catastrophe: duty, honor, country. And, of course, courage beyond us all.

John, your class salutes you.

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