Heroes You Should Know: Guy Gruters

 

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Guy Gruters grew up with a singular ambition:  to be the best at whatever he did.  And a quick glance at his developing resume would confirm that he was well on his way;  Eagle Scout, first in his graduating class in Engineering Science at the United States Air Force Academy, a Master’s degree in Aeronautical Engineering in less than one year, pilot training and fighter gunnery school.  And a beautiful wife and two healthy children seemed to round out the picture.  But Gruters wanted more.

 

So he volunteered for Viet Nam, flew more than 400 successful combat missions, and began collecting awards there too.

 

In one spectacular example of courage, Captain Gruters repeatedly flew his unarmed F-100 jet across a ground target, with the intention of drawing fire so that he could expose the enemy’s position and minimize the risk for his fellow pilots.  For this, he was awarded his second silver star for valor.  One month later, in November of 1967, he was shot down over the South China Sea, but was rescued.  At 25 years-old, Captain Gruters seemed remarkably close to golden.

 

But on December 20, 1967 Gruters was shot down again.  And this time there would be no dramatic rescue.  For the next five years and three months the man who thought he knew what success looked like got a whole new perspective.

 

In the Hoa Lo Prison (commonly known as the ‘Hanoi Hilton’), Gruters was starved, humiliated, tortured, and even forced to watch one of his fellow pilots beaten to death.  Without proper clothing or ventilation, he froze in the winter and baked in the summer.

 

Naturally as the days turned into weeks, and the weeks turned into months, Gruter’s heart hardened.  He decided he’d beat his North Vietnamese captors by holding on to his hatred and rage.  But by the end of his first year as a prisoner of war, Gruters knew he needed to change his strategy.  ‘To be the best’ he needed to now embrace a role he’d never dreamed of adding to his resume:  prisoner.  And he knew what that would involve.  In the darkness and filth of his tiny cell Guy began forgiving his captors, and he credits surviving the final four and a half years to this life-changing decision.  Peace replaced rage, and humility replaced pride.

 

Finally on March 14, 1973, after 1,912 days in captivity, Captain Guy Gruters was released during Operation Homecoming.  He and his wife would go on to have five more children, and today he writes and speaks about the power of forgiveness.

 

“To be the best”…you can’t give up, but you might need to surrender.

 

Guy Gruters is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Heroes You Should Know: Naoto Matsumura

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On March 11, 2011 Hell visited Japan;  a devastating earthquake, followed closely by a massive tsunami, and then the meltdown of the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.  Thousands of residents evacuated the area as the Japanese government established a 12.5 miles “exclusion zone” around the power plant to protect people from radiation exposure.

 

In the town of Tomioka, seven miles from Fukushima, 51 year-old construction worker Naoto Matsumura and his parents fled south to his aunt’s.  But she turned them away, fearing radiation contamination.  And when they reached the refugee camps and found them overcrowded and under-supplied, Naoto decided to go home to check on his animals.

 

What he found was a town of animals, waiting for their owners to return.  And since none did, Matsumura began making the rounds.  As he did, he found more and more creatures desperate for food and care, and he knew he could not leave.  Although the government has ordered him out of the exclusion zone, he refuses.

 

Nicknamed “Radioactive Man”, Matsumura knows the toxic levels of radiation he’s absorbed over the last four years will eventually kill him but believes caring for the animals of his town is worth the sacrifice.

 

He lives without electricity, running water, or human neighbors as the sole resident of his abandoned town and relies on food and water from outside the exclusion zone, along with monetary donations to support himself and his animals.

 

When he is not caring for the dogs, cats, cows, ducks, chickens, pigs, ostriches, and horses of Tomioka, Matsumura speaks to media about conditions in his town.

 

And just last month, four years after the nuclear disaster, the government declared that it was finally safe for the residents of Tomioka to return to their homes.

 

If they do, they will find one defiant man and a town full of animals who are alive because of his compassion for all creatures great and small.

 

And in a place that was given up for dead, that’s an incredible witness to life.

 

Naoto Matsumura is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Heroes You Should Know: Eddie Aikau

 

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Eddie Aikau was a son of the sea.  Born on Maui and reared on Oahu, he learned to surf at age eleven, and by sixteen he had dropped out of school so that he could pursue his dream of becoming a champion.  He’d work nights at the Dole Pineapple cannery, so he could surf during the day.  And soon he was a professional surfer as well as a lifeguard at the famous North Shore of Oahu where it was estimated he saved over 500 lives in the treacherous surf.

 

A striking figure in his trademark white surf trunks with a horizontal red stripe and his fire-engine red surfboard, Eddie was known for riding the biggest waves with his bowlegged stance.  Pictures of him surfing 30 foot waves at Waimea graced the cover of LIFE magazine, his image was used in a nationwide billboard advertising campaign by Bank of America, and he appeared in three surfing movies.

 

But surfing was more than a sport for Eddie.  It was a connection with his Hawaiian heritage.  And at a time when many had forgotten the proud traditions of the native Islanders, Eddie was a symbol for many of what had existed before Hawaii had been colonized.  And as he rose in stature, he was also able to confront many of the racial stereotypes that still existed about the native Hawaiians.

 

And when tensions arose between the native Hawaiian surfing community and the white surfers who came to Oahu to surf from the mainland and Australia, it was Eddie who served as an intermediary between the two factions, and led a fellowship that helped launch surfing as an international commercial sport.

 

The highlight of Eddie’s surfing career came in 1977 when he won the prestigious Duke Kahanamoku Invitational in his own home waters of Oahu.

 

Several months later, wanting a new challenge as well as an opportunity to champion his proud heritage, Eddie trained to be part of a team that sought to reenact the 2,400 mile ancient Polynesian sea voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti in a double-hulled canoe.  Chosen as one of the Hokule’a crew, Eddie and his fifteen mates set sail on March 16, 1978.  But five hours in, the hull sprung a leak in the midst of a terrible winter storm and the boat capsized.  All night the crew clung to the hull, and by 10:30 the next morning, with no way to communicate with shore, and blown outside the shipping lanes, Eddie volunteered to go for help.  On a ten-foot surfboard, 12 miles east of Lanai, Eddie paddled off.  One more time into the big surf.

 

Later that day the crew was miraculously saved after their last flare was seen by a commercial plane.  And for a week the Coast guard and many private boats searched for Eddie, but his body was never recovered.

 

This champion surfer—this champion human being—had paddled into eternity.

 

Eddie Aikau is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

 Heroes You Should Know: Clara Hale

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Clara McBride Hale, affectionately known as Mother Hale to most, was a widow with three children and a high school education at age 19.  So she went to work cleaning houses by day, and working as a janitor at night.  But being away from her children so much was increasingly unacceptable to her.  So she started a daycare out of her own home for children in her Harlem neighborhood.  And the love in the Hale home was so great many of the children began staying there, seeing their parents on weekends.

 

As Mother Hale’s family began to grow, she embraced her calling further by becoming a foster parent in 1940.  By the time she retired from her foster care ministry in 1968 she had reared and successfully launched over 40 children into the world, full of love, and self-esteem, and hope. And if that was all Clara Hale had done, she’d be a hero.

 

But just as Mother Hale was settling into a well-deserved retirement, her daughter brought a heroin-addicted young mother and her baby home.  That afternoon, while Mother made a phone call in the other room, the young mom left…without her baby—returning several weeks later with more of her children to leave with Hale.  By then twenty-two more drug-addicted babies had been dropped off.  And Hale House was born.  At the time, laws restricted foster homes to twelve children at a time, and Mother later confessed they routinely housed thirty to forty—she simply couldn’t say no.

 

Mother Hale, joined by her own adult children, cared for each one of these babies so well that eventually the public began to hear about this heroic woman and her ministry to abandoned babies.  And the financial support came.  This enabled Hale to purchase a five-story brownstone on 122nd Street in the heart of Harlem for her ever-growing family.  By the 1980’s, Hale House was also accepting babies infected with the AIDS virus.

 

Eventually Hale House would include a live-in rehabilitation program where drug-addicted mothers would receive medical and psychological care and job training while they got sober.  The goal was to reunite parents with their children, and a true sign of the program’s success was that in 1989, of the hundreds of children placed in foster care at Hale house, only twelve had to be adopted out.

 

It was estimated that by 1991 Clara Hale had cared for over 1,000 infants and babies.  And she worked virtually til the day she died.  It was reported that to the end she had at least one baby in her own bedroom, to hold and love.

 

Mother Hale was fond of saying, “When I get to Heaven I’m going to rest.”  With her spirit, I seriously doubt it.

 

Clara Hale is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Heroes You Should Know: The Families of Margraten

 

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Fresh from the breakthrough at Normandy, General Dwight Eisenhower and the Allied forces dreamed of a move that would end the war by Christmas of 1944.  The result was Operation Market Garden, where allied air and ground forces consisting of American, British, Canadian, Polish and Dutch soldiers would liberate Holland by seizing key bridges in Holland, and then rapidly sweep north into the lowlands of Germany while avoiding the German defense line.  So on the morning of September 17, 1944 thousands of paratroopers descended by parachute or glider into Holland, up to 150 kilometers behind enemy lines.

 

Unfortunately the Nazis were waiting, and after ten days of fierce fighting the Allied forces had to retreat, leaving over 17,000 of their soldiers behind—having paid the ultimate sacrifice for the cause of freedom.  Heroes you should know among the living and the dead?  No doubt.

 

But this is about those left to pick up the pieces—specifically at Margraten.  This is where the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial is located, and where gratitude is practiced in a most unique way.

 

Established in 1960, it is Europe’s third largest war cemetery for unidentified soldiers.  Rows and rows of white crosses and stars of David mark the 8,301 graves there.  All but 500 of these graves are non-Dutch—men who died on foreign soil, far from their homes and their loved ones.  But you wouldn’t know it.

 

Because each one of these graves has been adopted by a family.  These families regularly tend to their adopted soldier’s grave, attend annual services in honor of their soldier, and many even hang a portrait of their soldier in their homes to honor his memory.

 

You would be hard pressed to find American soldiers buried on American soil honored so beautifully.

 

By military standards, Operation Market Garden was a failure, but this remarkable community in this little Dutch town continues to disagree.  Because courage, and sacrifice, and love never fail.  And each one of these generous souls testifies to this truth.  The families of Margraten remember, and they are grateful.

 

But they haven’t just felt gratitude, they’ve lived it—and keep living it.  And in a tired world so suffocatingly full of entitlement this is remarkable.

 

They are heroes you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.