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Why Courage Matters

“Courage,” Winston Churchill explained, is “the first of human qualities . . . because it guarantees all the others.” As a naval officer, P.O.W., and one of America’s most admired political leaders, John McCain has seen countless acts of bravery and self-sacrifice. Now, in this inspiring meditation on courage, he shares his most cherished stories of ordinary individuals who have risked everything to defend the people and principles they hold most dear. Read an excerpt:

Chapter 1

“A kind of madness” is how a friend of mine, a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War, described the courage displayed by men whose battlefield heroics had earned them the Medal of Honor. “It’s impossible to comprehend, really, even if you witness it. . . . It’s one mad moment. You never think anyone you know is really capable of it. Not even the toughest, bravest, best men in the company. They’re as surprised as anyone to see it. And if someone does do it, and lives, they probably never do it again. You might think the guy who’s always running around in a fight, exposing himself to enemy fire, yelling a lot, might do it. But that’s not what happens. They just get killed usually.”

Select at random a dozen Medal of Honor recipients and read the citations that accompany their decorations. Some will describe a single lonely act of heroism, one man’s self-sacrifice that saved the lives of his comrades, who will remember the act for the rest of their lives with feelings of gratitude and lasting obligation mixed with something that feels much like shame-shame that one’s life, no matter how good and useful, no matter how honorable, might not deserve to have been ransomed at such a cost. All the citations will record acts of great heroism, of course. But some might seem plausible, if just barely so. The reader might even fantasize himself capable of such heroism, under extreme circumstances, without feeling too ashamed of the presumption. Maybe you are. At least one, however, will tell of such incredible daring, such epic courage, that no witness to it could imagine himself, or anyone he knows, capable of it. It might be the story of Roy Benavidez.

Special Forces master sergeant Roy Benavidez was the son of a Texas sharecropper. Orphaned at a young age, quiet and mistaken as slow, derided as a “dumb Mexican” by his classmates, he left school in the eighth grade to work in the cotton fields. He joined the army at nineteen. On his first tour in Vietnam, in 1964, he stepped on a land mine. Army doctors thought the wound would be permanently crippling. It wasn’t. He recovered and became a Green Beret.

During his second combat tour, in the early morning of May 2, 1968, in Loc Ninh, Vietnam, Sergeant Benavidez monitored by radio a twelve-man reconnaissance patrol. Three Green Berets, friends of his, and nine Montagnard tribesmen had been dropped in the dense jungle west of Loc Ninh, just inside Cambodia. No man aboard the low-flying helicopters beating noisily toward the landing zone that morning could have been unaware of how dangerous the assignment was. Considered an enemy sanctuary, the area was known to be vigilantly patrolled by a sizable force of the North Vietnamese army intent on keeping it so. Once on the ground, the twelve men were almost immediately engaged by the enemy and soon surrounded by a force that grew to a battalion.

The mission had been a mistake, and three helicopters were ordered to evacuate the besieged patrol. Fierce small arms and antiaircraft fire, wounding several crew members, forced the helicopters to return to base. Listening on the radio, Benavidez heard one of his friends scream, “Get us out of here!” and, “So much shooting it sounded like a popcorn machine.” He jumped into one of the returning helicopters, volunteering for a second evacuation attempt. When he arrived at the scene, he found that none of the patrol had made it to the landing zone. Four were already dead, including the team leader, and the other eight were wounded and unable to move. Carrying a knife and a medic bag, Benavidez made the sign of the cross, leapt from the helicopter hovering ten feet off the ground, and ran seventy yards to his injured comrades. Before he reached them, he was shot in the leg, face, and head. He got up and kept moving.

When he reached their position, he armed himself with an enemy rifle, began to treat the wounded, reposition them, distribute ammunition, and call in air strikes. He threw smoke grenades to indicate their location and ordered the helicopter pilot to come in close to pick up the wounded. He dragged four of the wounded aboard, and then, while under intense fire and returning fire with his captured weapon, he ran alongside the helicopter as it flew just a few feet off the ground toward the others. He got the rest of the wounded aboard, as well as the dead, except for the fallen team leader. As he raced to retrieve his body, and the classified documents the dead man had carried, he was shot in the stomach and grenade fragments cut into his back.

Before he could make his way back toward the helicopter, the pilot was fatally wounded and the aircraft crashed upside down. He helped the wounded escape the burning wreckage and organized them in a defensive perimeter. He called for air strikes and fire from circling gunships to suppress the ever increasing enemy fire enough to allow another evacuation attempt. Critically wounded, Benavidez moved constantly along the perimeter, bringing water and ammunition to the defenders, treating their wounds, encouraging them to hold on. He sustained several more gunshot wounds, but he continued to fight. For six hours.

When another extraction helicopter landed, he helped the wounded toward it, one and two at a time. On his second trip, an enemy soldier ran up behind him and struck him with his rifle butt. Sergeant Benavidez turned to close with the man and his bayonet and fought him, hand to hand, to the death. Wounded again, he recovered the rest of his comrades. As the last were lifted onto the helicopter, he exchanged more gunfire with the enemy, killing two more Vietnamese soldiers, and then ran back to collect the classified documents before at last climbing aboard and collapsing, apparently dead.

The army doctor back at Loc Ninh thought him dead anyway. Bleeding profusely, his intestines spilling from his stomach wounds, completely immobile, and unable to speak, Benavidez was placed into a body bag. As the doctor began to pull up the black shroud’s zipper, Roy Benavidez spit in his face. They flew him to Saigon for surgery, where he began a year in hospitals recovering from seven serious gunshot wounds, twenty-eight shrapnel wounds, and bayonet wounds in both arms.

Hard to believe, isn’t it, what this one man did? And why? Because his buddies called out to him? Because the training just took over? Because it was automatic, he was in the moment, aware of what was required of him but senseless to the probable futility of his efforts? These are the sort of explanations you usually hear from someone who has distinguished himself in battle. They really don’t help us understand. They mean something, but as an explanation for that kind of heroism, they are as unenlightening to me as haiku poetry. What kind of training prepares you to do that? What kind of unit solidarity, how great the love and trust for the man to your right and your left, inspires you to the superhuman heroics of Roy Benavidez?

I’ll be damned if I know. I was trained to be an aviator, not a Special Forces commando. But how does anyone-Green Beret, navy SEAL, whatever-learn to be that brave? How do you build that kind of courage in someone? It certainly appears to be superhuman and incomprehensible to those with a more human-size supply, brave and resourceful though they may be. I can’t explain it. No one I know can.

We are taught to understand, correctly, that courage is not the absence of fear, but the capacity for action despite our fears. Does anyone have that great a store of courage that he would think himself capable of meaningful action with the eruption of fear that any one of us would have felt rise in our throats and burn our hearts were we to find ourselves in the hopeless situation of Roy Benavidez? I wouldn’t. I don’t know anyone who would, and I’ve known some very brave men. I doubt very much Roy Benavidez thought he would. I would challenge the sanity of any reader who imagines the possibility of possessing such mastery over fear. It’s not to be expected in anyone. No courage could contend with such fear, and animate our limbs, and control our minds. Fear would have to be vanquished completely.

Roy Benavidez jumped off the helicopter, acutely aware of the situation, perhaps, of the enemy’s strength, of their location, of the circumstances of his comrades, of what needed to be done, but somehow insensate to the hopelessness of it all, to the gravity of his wounds, to the futility of fighting on. What pushed him? A tsunami of adrenaline? What carried him through? A sublime fatalism, driven by love or sense of duty to resign himself completely to the situation, whatever its horrors, and make his last hour his greatest? We can’t know. All we can know is that in one moment of madness, six hours long, Roy Benavidez became to the men he saved, and maybe to himself, an avenging angel of God, masterful, indomitable, and utterly fearless.

If we can’t comprehend his heroism or imagine possessing his courage, can it offer our own lives any instruction? I believe it can. Roy’s life won’t teach us how to save eight men while sustaining several dozen wounds. An act of heroism, of extraordinary courage, the grandeur of it, won’t easily inspire us to act in imitation, but it can inspire us to emulate its author. For that, we should learn what we can of the whole experience of the subject, the hero’s life, as it was before and after, and believe that trying to emulate the character it reveals is one tried way to prepare for the tests that might await us and gain hope that our courage will not be wanting in the moment.

We must accept the fact that some heroes, whether their courage was momentary or constant, might have led less than admirable lives. I don’t think, however extraordinary the courage, that it will attain the grandeur of the inspirational to a sound mind were it motivated by selfish or malevolent purposes, or exercised by someone whose life, on the whole, was contemptible. Unless, of course, an act of heroism was an anomaly in the life that preceded it and character changing thereafter. The stories cherished most by all sinners whose consciences are not permanently mute concern the life-redeeming act of courage. They’re not, however, as abundant in real life as they are in fiction. Better to look to the lives of good men and women who in a crucible risked or sacrificed their own security for someone else.

What do we know of Roy Benavidez’s life before and after that moment of madness? We know that he was a good man. The straitened circumstances of his youth did not embitter him or lead him astray. The constant, lifelong pain of his wounds didn’t undo him. His valor was not properly recognized for thirteen years. In 1981, Ronald Reagan-who said of his heroism that were it a movie script “you wouldn’t believe it”-replaced the Distinguished Service Cross that General William Westmoreland had given Roy in 1968 with the Medal of Honor. The delay didn’t seem to bother Roy. “I don’t like to be called a hero,” he complained, and then, in the familiar refrain of veterans from all wars, he offered the observation, “The real heroes are the ones who gave their lives for their country.” That kind of humility from surviving veterans who distinguished themselves in combat is so commonplace that we’ve come to expect it from them. We don’t take it seriously. We even suspect that it’s false. We don’t see how remarkable it is. They mean it. Every word.

Roy stayed in the army until he retired in 1976. Then he lived on his pension and disability pay and spent his time speaking at schools and to youth groups, counseling troubled kids, encouraging them to stay in school and off drugs. In 1998, on his deathbed, with two pieces of shrapnel still in his heart, he proclaimed: “I’m proud to be an American.”

The navy named a ship after him and the army a building. His hometown erected a statue. But Hollywood never made a movie about him. No one would have believed it.

Excerpted from Why Courage Matters by John McCain with Mark Salter Copyright© 2004 by John McCain with Mark Salter. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.