Monday, November 24, 2008

I went to war but I'm not a hero.

Ever since 9-11-2001, there has been a very broad and frequent use of the term "hero". In doing so, we are pretty much destroying this word to such an extraordinary extent that they lose their meaning. By using the term so broadly, we have managed to group someone donating blood with soldiers dying in hand-to-hand combat. Workers in the World Trade Center are considered in the same class of "hero" as the firefighters who entered the fated buildings by their own free will in order to save lives. Giving blood is a noble activity, just as the loss of life in the collapse of the Twin Towers is a travesty. Examples certainly exist of individual acts of valor and courage, but in a broad sense, it would be a disservice to the truly brave to consider either party "heroes."

What about the pilot who saved 155 lives by landing his plane on the Hudson river? He has been hailed a hero, but wasn’t he just just doing his job? He was after all a specialist in airline crisis management. And what about Jan Palach. the Czech student who committed suicide by self immolation as a political protest against the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. Was his suicide an act of heroism or egoism? Or does it depend on what the act achieves?

Earlier this month, Lasantha Wickrematunga, a Sri Lankan newspaper editor was murdered on his way to work. Mr. Wickrematunga exposed corruption in the Sri Lankan government and even predicted his own murder. He believed that journalism was a career that called on its practitioners to lay down their lives calling it an honor to die for his duty. Does heroism mean dying for your cause? How far should heroes go to honor their duty? What does it take to be a hero?

In Mumbai, the wife of the murdered chief of city’s anti terrorism squad has spoken out in an interview about her loss. Kavita Karkare said she was proud of her husband’s sacrifice, but wishes her husband had opted for another profession. Is it selfish to die for a cause? What about those left behind?

Who do you define as a hero? Can we consider footballers and movies stars to be heroes in the same way as we do firemen and doctors? Do we use the word too lightly or is it simply a question of definition?

My definition of hero is an ordinary person that did extraordinary things. A true hero is really never a hero at all; at least not in their own mind.

My son, 1SG Alex Ortega, had lunch with Master Sergeant Roy P. Benavidez (A Texan half Mexican and half Yaki Indian) back when he was an E5 or E6. This man, a Vietnam Veteran, is a hero to me as well as to those men whos lives he saved. Sergeant Benavidez went on a rescue mission on May 2, 1968, to save wounded brothers; he was the only man to go. Carrying only a knife and a medic bag, he ran to his wounded buddies, sustaining gunshot wounds to his leg, face and head. A helicopter landed to rescue all of the men that were stranded. Benavidez got them all on board the helicopter only for the pilot to be fatally wounded, causing the chopper to crash.

He rescued all of the men from the crash and fought off the Vietnamese Army for six hours with the help of air strikes, circling gun ships, and his own fortitude. A second chopper landed and he boarded his wounded comrades, then he got on and then collapsed. Everyone thought he was dead, placing him in a body bag. While the doctor was zipping up the bag, Benavidez spat in his face to signal he was alive. They flew him to Saigon for surgery, treating him for seven severe gunshot wounds, twenty-eight shrapnel wounds, and bayonet wounds in both arms.

When he was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Ronald Reagan, Benavidez said "I don't like to be called a hero. The real heroes are the ones who gave their lives for their country." Such humility and modesty from Sergeant Benavidez is really representative of heroes because they never want the credit.

Heroes are not born heroes. People that fantasize of doing heroic things are never going to be heroes. True heroes are the people that do not think about being a hero; they just do what is instinctive to them and then do not bask in the glory of their actions. It surely was not Roy Benavidez's plan to go into that combat zone to get shot; he just wanted to save his friends. He just rose to the occasion and did what he thought was right.

What truly makes a hero is the courage to say that it is not oneself that is the hero, it is someone else. In this case, Benavidez says that it was not he that was the hero; it was the faceless men who paid the ultimate sacrifice.

On March 23, 2003, 19 year old Pvt. Jessica Lynch, a member of the 507 Maintenance Company, was wounded when the unit's commander made a fateful wrong turn and drove his lightly armed column straight into an Iraqi ambush. In the confusion, a bloodbath ensued. Ten Americans were reported killed, 50 wounded and 12 had surrendered to the Iraqi Fedayeen fighters.

On April 3, the Washington Post ran the front-page story headline, "She was fighting to the death." Like some sort of real-life version of Hollywood's G.I. Jane, Jessica was purported to have fought back against overwhelming odds, even after she was wounded. As reported in the media, she had allegedly killed several Iraqis and only surrendered after firing her last bullet.

Was she a hero? No. She was a soldier that broke her foot in the crash of her vehicle, she surrendered, was taken captive, probably raped and was rescued.

The word hero is always heard these days. One hears the term applied to people where it is not really necessary or appropriate. Does toughness and fortitude on the field of sports really constitute toughness and fortitude on the field of battle? No it does not. A man who throws his body on a grenade so that the guys to his left and right can go home and see their children is a hero. A firefighter who disregards his own life for another's life is a hero. True heroes are the people that you do not usually hear about. They are always in the shadows and never in the spotlight and they would not have it any other way.

"Hero" is a very special term to be used accurately and with great care.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Stevie and the nickle...

Every time I think of this I can't help but smile because it reminds me of how people will let their emotions overrule their logic.

I was about 9 years old and Stevie was about 7 or 8. Stevie was a neighbor who lived 2 houses to the west of Mom's house on Oliver Street in San Pedro, CA. On this particular day, we were walking east on Oliver St. somewhere between his house and ours. As I recall, I saw a nickle laying on the sidewalk. To use at that time and at that age, a nickle was enough to buy a Snickers, a Mars bar or even a soda.

As I pointed in the direction of the coin, I said, "Look, Stevie, a nickle!" Stevie reacted immediately and got to the nickle before I did. I told him that it was mine because I saw it first but he said that it was his because he got to it first. Now if this would have happened in front of Stevie's house, the assumption would be that it was more his than mine and in front of my house, more mine than his. That was sort of and unwritten law that all of the kids on the street recognized and respected. However, since it was between both of our houses, the geographical location of the nickle was considered the same as "international waters" and therefore, anything goes. So in order to settle the issue, we reverted to "jungle law" and started to fight over the nickle. Well, Stevie was smaller than me and real squiggly too. He got away and ran home with the nickle. I was crushed. Not because we fought, not because Stevie got away, but because he had my nickle.

I walked home crying about the lost nickle. When she saw me, my Mom asked why I was crying so I gave her a full account of what happened between Stevie, me and the nickle.

Now my Mom was raised during the Great Depression of the early 1930's so she was very frugal regarding financial and other matters. So she too reverted to "jungle law" and immediately got on the phone and called Stevie's Mom. They started to "argue" about what had happened. Seeing as how when my Mom got fired up, it would be a while before she was cool enough to handle so I went back outside to ride my bike. As I rolled out from the driveway to the sidewalk, I saw Stevie walking toward my house. He walked up to me and asked, "What are you doing?" "Nothing.", I said. He asked,"Want to go to the store?" I said, "Yeah, lets go."

Now the store that he was talking about was what we called the "Little Yellow Store". It was a neighborhood store set up in a converted clapboard house on the SW corner of Summerland and Bandini. At this store, a small bottle of Coke costs 7 cents. Stevie only had a nickle (my nickle). However, the store owner would allow us to sit outside and drink the soda as long as we brought her back the bottle which has a deposit of 2 cents. So in effect, we paid for the soda, but not for the bottle.

So Stevie and I sat outside the store and shared the soda. When we finished, we walked home and talked and played the whole way (2 blocks) as little boys will do. We hung out in front of Stevie's house for a while and then I went home. When I walked into the house, I heard my Mom still arguing with Stevie's Mom about the nickle that no longer existed and guaranteed, will not even be remembered tomorrow. Well, maybe 51 years later but not tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Well, back when I was a kid....

I was born in 1948. I have some very clear recollections of what things were like when I was about 8 years old. The year would be 1956 and by this time we were living in San Pedro, CA. As can be imagined, it was quite a bit different than today.

First of all, my mom didn't smoke or drink while she was pregnant with be but if she did, it was something that wouldn't have caused any concern to anyone. CPS, or Child Protective Services was about 20 years into the future.

She took aspirin, ate blue cheese, raw egg products, loads of bacon and processed meat, tuna from a can, and didn't get tested for diabetes or cervical cancer.

When I came home from the hospital, my baby crib was covered with bright colored lead-based paints. I slept on my stomach and I shared the room with my sister and brother.

There were no childproof lids on medicine bottles, doors or cabinets and when I rode my bike, I had no helmet and sometimes, no shoes. Hitchhiking was not considered a risk.

Back then, none of the families cars had seat belts and, yes, as a result of a sharp turn, in the back seat, we would slide from one side of the car to the other. The first car that we had with seat belts was my moms 1965 Pontiac Catalina.

If our parents took us with them to the store, we could be left in the car or outside the store with a bag of Fritos without being abducted.

We drank water from the garden hose and bottled water did not exist other than the 5 gal. bottles from Sparkletts.

Buying "take out food" was a very rare event in our house and was from Foster's Old Fashion Freeze on 4th and Gaffey. (15-cent hamburgers, 19-cent cheeseburgers, 20-cent milkshakes and 10-cent sodas). No Pizza Hut, KFC, Taco Bell or Subway. We didn't even know about McDonalds as it was in its infancy.

We ate meals all together as a family. We all ate the same thing at the same time and in the same place; the kitchen table. You ate what you were served, no excuses. My mom had a habit of giving you one more spoonful than you asked for. If you wanted 2 spoonfuls of beans, she would give you 3. If you wanted 1, you get 2. If you didn't want any, you get 1. And you will eat all of it.

Everything closed at 5.30 pm and I do mean everything. If you needed milk or sugar at 6:00 pm, you had to borrow from your neighbor. (7-11 got it's name from the hours that they were open, 7:00 am to 11:00 pm, which was revolutionary but they didn't appear on the West Coast until 1964) And no one was open on Sundays. Yes, getting through a Sunday Bar-B-Que required proper prior planning!

We shared one soda amongst four friends, everyone drank from the same bottle and NO ONE actually died from this. This was usually a 7-cent Coca Cola in a bottle purchased at the "Little Yellow Store" located at the SW corner of Summerland and Bandini (long since gone). It was customary to wipe the opening of the bottle with your shirt after taking a drink and before passing it on. We probably thought that that alone killed cooties.

We would collect used glass soda bottles and cash them in at the "Little Yellow Store" and buy candy and ice cream with the earnings. We shared the candy. Small bottles yielded 2-cents but the bigger Par-T-Pak bottles were 5-cents.

We ate cupcakes, white bread and real butter and drank sodas with real sugar in them, but we weren't overweight because...... WE WERE ALWAYS OUTSIDE PLAYING!!

It was common (normal) to leave home in the morning and play all day, as long as I was back when it started to get dark. No, no cell phones or pagers. No one was able to reach me all day. And I was just fine. We would walk to Peck Park Pool, pay 35-cents and spend all day there until it closed. No one ever came by to see if any of us had drowned. That was the lifeguards job.

We would spend hours building our go-carts out of scraps and then ride down the hill on the north side of Oliver Street next to Bandini Street School (only to find out we forgot the about brakes). We built many tree houses and cubby holes and played in the canyon (area behind Mom's house) with our toy trucks (made from stamped and formed steel). We actually would pick teams for a semi-organized "Rock Fight" that also took place in the canyon. Yes, we threw rocks at each other. There was only one requirement that one had to meet in order to play. Well, it was more of a promise than a requirement. And that was that if you were hit with a rock, you would not cry and you wouldn't tell. Ones ability to fulfill that promise was always regulated by the force with which the rock struck you multipled by where the rock struck you. We weren't very good shots but once in a while someone who threw the rock would get lucky and inversly, the one who was struck was not as lucky. Oh well, just another day of wholesome play.

We explored the harbor, the ponds at Averill Park, the woods around Peck Park and any abandoned places we came across, and never drowned or got lost.

We did not have Playstations, Nintendos, X-boxes, no video games at all, no 99 channels on cable, no video tape movies, no surround sound. We had one black and white TV in the living room and with the antenna on the roof, were able to get channels 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, and 11. If the weather was clear, you might get channel 12 which was a Spanish language channel. No, in 1958, multi-language anything was an unknown concept. Channel 12 was broadcast from Tijuana, Mexico.

Kites and Yo-Yos had their own season. We made our own kites from newspaper.

We read comics and books and learned to make them last.

There were no mobile phones, no personal computers, no Internet chat rooms.....BUT.....WE HAD REAL FRIENDS (flesh and blood humans) and we went outside and found them! We rode bikes, we boxed, wrestled, climbed trees, made tree houses, fought and made up.

I was hit by a car, fell out of trees, got cut, and there were no lawsuits as a result of these accidents.

Only girls had pierced ears and long hair and only men had tattoos and short hair.

We ate worms and mud pies made from dirt (the worms didn't live in us forever).

And in December, there was only one festive holiday....... CHRISTMAS ...... and everyone wished each other a MERRY CHRISTMAS without any concern about being criticized for saying it. Take it or leave it!

I was given an air rifle that shot BBs for my birthday.

We rode bikes or walked to a friend's house and knocked on the door or rang the bell, or just yelled for them to come out and play!

Little League Baseball actually had tryouts at Peck Park and not everyone made the team. Those who didn't had to learn to deal with their disappointment (You know, suck it up!). Imagine that!! Getting into the team was based on skill and not because of any concept of fairness. Strange but true!

I went to Catholic School from 1st grade through the 8th grade. Our teachers, nuns from Our Lady of the Presentation, would smack the back of your hand with a wooden ruler or smack you on the rear with the belt they carried around their waist, depending on the severity of your crime. Bullies always ruled the playground at school.

The idea of a parent confronting a teacher for using corporal punishment on their children was unheard of. They actually sided with the teachers! As a matter of fact, if you "forced" a teacher to use corporal punishment on you, once your parents found out, and they would, they would most likely punish you with additional corporal punishment. Of course, corporal punishment was not a commonly used term back then. It was referred to as a "spanking" and nothing more. Nobody wanted one but no one died from one either. No big deal. It came with the territory of "being a kid".

We had the freedom to fail, the freedom to succeed and were taught to assume responsibility for either outcome. My mom stressed this to me time and time again when she told me that "If you use it, you put it away, if you dirty it, you clean it, if you break it, you buy it". (Emphasis on "YOU")

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Am I right or am I wrong?

Am I right or am I wrong? Do you agree or disagree? Does it matter to me that you think I'm right or wrong or that you agree or disagree?

No. Not really. Since everyone has their own take on life, no one can really say that anyone is either right or wrong when it comes to those things that are no more than an opinion based on one's own experiences. This is not so regarding anything that can be measured to an established standard that one must meet.

This blog is my soap box (and I have a bull horn), my wall of graffiti (and I'm the only one with a can of spray paint) , my treasure chest of recollections (and only I have the key). My postings will allow me to state my case, express myself, explain my point of view and to document the things that I often wonder about but never fully understood. That's all. I'm not asking if I'm right or wrong. It is what it is.

I find it challenging to try to document my thoughts in such as way so as to paint an accurate rendition of them in another persons mind when they read the completed verbiage. I want them to feel what I feel. It's not necessary to agree, just listen and understand. If I succeed in documenting a given thought to my satisfaction, you'll never know it because only I know what I wanted to say in the first place. However, the fact that I posted it is a good indicator that I was satisfied, but not always.

It would be interesting to hear other peoples points of views and opinions on a subject of interest to me, but I'm not asking for it. I have no problem explaining what has happened in my past or what I did but I don't want to go through a process of justification just for the sake of it. After all, some of my postings will reference situations that happened long ago and I was a different person then. I may only remember that I did a given thing but may not remember why I thought it was a good idea at the time.

I am impressed by anyone who, when in the process of stating their point of view, respect mine. If that doesn't happen, I won't hear a thing you say.

Did I fight for your freedom?

As having served as an Infantryman in Vietnam in 1969, I have often wondered if some people actually do feel that I (we) fought for their freedom. Sometimes I wonder if I think that. Since there are many who don't believe that, I ask this question to only those who are open to the possibility that I (we) did fight for your freedom. You may be free to watch whatever you want on television but you are not free to tell your neighbor what to watch. I take that back, you are free to tell your neighbor what to watch on TV and they are free to ignore you. I think that is more accurate.

For the sake of argument, I'll direct my original question to those who maintain the approximate belief that freedom is the proclamation of liberty, individual sovereignty, self-determination, inalienable rights, equality of opportunity, justice under the rule of law and human dignity for all, derived from God and guaranteed through constitutional republican government of the people, by the people and for the people - all for the purpose of enabling us to find individual and collective happiness (summed up as the "American Spirit").
My answer to the question of did I (we) fight for "your" freedom are "Not exactly" and "Probably".

Not exactly because when I joined the Army in February of 1969, I didn't even know where Vietnam was let alone have any single opinion regarding our presence there. And some folks would smirk and say, we shouldn't even have been there, it was politically motivated, our freedom wasn't threatened, etc. I knew that we had soldiers in Vietnam but I felt unaffected by that as how, at the point in my life, it had no meaning to me. My joining the Army had nothing to do with protecting my or your freedom. I did it for the adventure of it. No, not the adventure of going to Vietnam, just the adventure of being in the Army. Going to Vietnam was by chance (if not inevitable). So no, I didn't really fight for anyone's freedom.

But then again, I probably did.

Let's say that you live in an apartment which is the 5th building from the corner. You hear your next door neighbor, a fireman, running out of his apartment screaming that the house on the corner is on fire. By the time that he gets to the corner, the fire has reached the 2nd house from the corner. He applies his fire fighting skills to the max and by the time he puts out the fire, the 3rd house from the corner, as well as the first and second, lay in ruins. The 4th building from the corner was slightly scorched. The 5th, yours, was saved.

Did you neighbor fight to protect your property? Maybe. Did he put his life on the line to save the folks in the house on the corner? Maybe. If you ask him, he may say that he was just doing his job but for all you know, he's a pyromaniac and gets off being involved with fire! Who knows? And then again, who cares about the reason that he did what he did. In this case you would agree that his actions had something to do with your apartment not burning and you'd be grateful for his actions.

But what if you lived in the house that was 20th from the corner, or even the 50th from the corner. You probably wouldn't feel the same because you never felt that your house was in eminent danger. As a matter of fact, you might not have even noticed that there was a fire down the street. It's too far away for you to feel the danger. It was too far away to affect how you live.

But if the fire had gone unchecked, and no one intervened, and the wind was just right, the fire would have reached your house. But by that time, it would be a raging inferno that would have very likely claimed your home as another fallen victim. But it didn't, did it?

So, the question is, did that fireman save your house? Maybe.

Did the Vietnam Veteran fight for and defend your freedom? Yes, I know, your house is the 50th from the corner, but believe me, the answer is, "Probably".

The world is much to complex for me to fully understand what goes on and who's involved and how it all fits together, who's lying and who's being truthful so I can't honestly say that "YES, WE DID FIGHT FOR YOUR FREEDOM".

But I do know what was in our hearts.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Why a Blog?

Lately I have been recalling many of my past personal experiences that I consider significant events in my personal history. I benefited from some of them and paid a price for others. To a great extent, I was formed into who I am as a result. I want to document, primarily for my family, the most significant of these experiences (or situations). I want them to know more about me than they do at the moment.

Often I find myself in a situation or see someone else in a situation that closely resembles one that I've been in before. No, it's not déjà vu. Just like there are a given number of plots for movies (IE; That Horror Movie with the Psycho, Buddy Cop, The Action Movie, Chick Flick Romance, The Twist, Stereotype Shakeup, Epic War Movie, Teen Comedy, etc.), it seems to me that there's only a set number of situations that one can find himself in. Just like an "Action Movie" can have many, many variations by changing any of the many variables (actor, location, time in history, etc.) the bottom line is it's still in the genre of an "Action Movie". Likewise, a real-life situation (Situation X) has a multitude of variables as well, but the bottom line is that it's basically a variation of Situation X, no matter how you slice it. When I'm in a situation, I invariably categorize them as a Situation X, Y or Z. This allows me to apply knowledge learned from past situations to new situations. This is not to say that I always come out smelling like a rose because I don't.

My situations are nothing spectacular, but for those that were and continue to be affected by the person I was and am, these postings may provide some insight into who I am and where I come from. Not in the geographical sense but an emotional, intellectual and psychological one. We are products of our environment and I want to describe the environments that I have found myself in over the years. Like all of us, I've had some experiences that had a very profound impact in my development as a person and how I viewed myself and others. If it was a positive experience, I may see it as an award or a shining moment in my life, if it was negative I may see it as a scar that an incident that left me injured; it may not hurt anymore but I'll always remember what happened and especially the pain. Either way, I am always aware of them.

The way I interpreted this combination of good and bad experiences and the decisions I made in response to them, affected the manner in which I responded to the world around me. I have noticed that sometimes I may initially blame someone else for my situation, but eventually, like in 2 minutes, I will take that blame and place it where it really belongs; on my own shoulders. I realize that I was born with freedom of choice and have always had the ability to apply that freedom in every situation I have ever been in. Even the decision not to exercise this freedom is a choice in itself.

I am hoping that as I post my thoughts over time that my family will learn something new about me (and maybe I'll learn something new about myself) and use these pieces of information as bits of a puzzle that when enough pieces are in place, one will get a good sense of who I am and where I come from. Even I can't fully appreciate those two aspects of my being. Although I have a large family, I have never succeeded in opening up to anyone in such a way that they really got to know me and I would like to change that. Some may say that I never tried and I can't totally discount that opinion.