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.

Heroes You Should Know: August Landmesser

350px-August-Landmesser-Almanya-1936If a picture is worth a thousand words, this one is worth a million.  It’s 1936 and the Blohm + Voss shipyard in Hamburg is hosting Adolf Hitler, who has come to witness the unveiling of a new ship for his Nazi war machine.  The German newspaper Die Zeit is there to capture the moment, and the adoring audience of laborers facing their Fuhrer—manufactured propaganda.  But then courage breaks through.

 

In the sea of “Heil Hitler” salutes, a lone figure stands in defiance, arms crossed in silent protest.  No big deal?  In 1936 Nazi Germany, this man could have been put to death for such an act.  But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

 

Five years earlier, at the height of Germany’s post war depression, August Landmesser decided to join the new Nazi party, which promised reform for the stagnant economy and jobs for all—while conveniently leaving out the part about world domination and a “final solution” for the Jews.

 

But in 1935 when August became engaged to the Jewish Irma Eckler, and applied for a marriage license he was expelled from the Nazi party.  Later that year Irma gave birth to their first daughter.  So when the now iconic photograph was shot, August was already in trouble deep with the Nazis.

 

A year later, recognizing that their future together was in serious jeopardy, the young family tried to flee to Denmark, but was stopped at the border.  August was charged with “dishonoring the race” under Nazi racial laws because he had not abandoned his wife, who was now pregnant with their second child.  The case was dismissed for lack of evidence, as Eckler’s step-father had been Christian and she’d actually been baptized.  Even so, August was given strict orders to not repeat the offense—code for “leave your woman.”  But he chose love.

 

And later that year, when the “Rassenschande” policy was passed, which gave soldiers permission to detain all non-Aryan women married to German men, Irma was captured by the Gestapo.  She was allowed to give birth to their second child, but was then sent to Ravensbruck where she was gassed in 1942.  August was sentenced to two years of hard labor in the Concentration camp at Borgermoor.  When he was released, he was immediately drafted into a penal battalion and killed in action in Croatia.  Their two daughters, Ingrid and Irene, were placed in foster care but would survive.

 

And it was Ingrid, August and Irma’s first born, who in 1991 identified her father in that remarkable photograph, taken in that Nazi shipyard in 1936—one man, arms crossed, refusing to salute evil and making a radical statement about love.

 

Non-conformity has seldom said so much, or looked so beautiful. 

 

August Landmesser is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Heroes You Should Know: Horatio Spafford

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Horatio Spafford was a prominent, well-to-do Chicago attorney in the late 1800’s, who was happily married with four young daughters.  He is best known for the traditional hymn he penned, “It Is Well With My Soul.”

 

But the story behind the story reads more like something taken from the Book of Job.

 

His fortunes began to turn in the Spring of 1871.  Having invested heavily in real estate, the Great Fire of Chicago which burned for three days wiped out most of Spafford’s investments.

 

Two years later, still trying to re-build his financial world, Spafford decided to vacation with his family in England.  Delayed by business at the last minute he sent his wife and their daughters—ages eleven, nine, five, and two—on ahead.  Off the coast of France, the ship collided with another ship and sank.  All four of the Spafford daughters perished.

 

One can only imagine what Horatio Spafford felt as he sailed for England to console his grieving wife Anna.  But what we do know is that as he passed the area where his daughters had died, there is where he penned the immortal words, “Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my soul.”

 

The cynic might be tempted to wonder if poor Mr. Spafford was simply in shock, or trying his best to spiritualize away losses of Biblical proportion.  Well with his soul?  Denial, right?  Eventually his spiritual and psychological house would collapse in the face of his crushing reality, right?  Wrong.

 

After their church declared their tragedies to be a sign of divine retribution, and the Spafford’s lost another child—this time to scarlet fever—Horatio and Anna left for Israel, to establish the ‘American Colony’ with their two surviving children.

 

This philanthropic organization offered humanitarian aid to Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike—showing no partiality, and preaching the Gospel ONLY with their works.

 

Horatio Spafford would spend the last seven years of his life in service to the suffering, dying just days short of his 60th birthday.  He was buried in Jerusalem.

 

It’s been said that how you respond to losses will determine whether your life becomes bitter or bigger.  But Horatio Spafford reminds us that there is a third category:  heroic.

 

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

Heroes You Should Know: Mary Bethune

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The fifteenth child born to former slaves, Mary McLeod Bethune was the only member of her family to go to school.  She eventually received a scholarship to Scotia seminary where she studied to be a missionary.  But instead of Africa, where she’d dreamed of serving, Bethune was to become a missionary of justice and equality in her own country—the United States of America.

 

Bethune founded a school for African-American women in 1904 that what would become Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach.

 

Along with her efforts in education, her civil rights work had earned her a national platform by the mid 1920’s.  Bethune would go on to serve as an advisor on housing, child welfare, and minority issues to three American presidents.  And Eleanor Roosevelt considered her one of her most trusted friends.

 

Mary Bethune saw opportunities where others saw obstacles.  When she learned that a young black student had been refused admittance to a hospital in Daytona Beach, she helped open one that served the African American community.  During both World Wars, she pushed for integration in the American Red Cross and organized the first officer’s candidate school for black women.  And when Florida segregation law restricted blacks from using public beaches, she raised money to buy two miles of coastline as well as the surrounding homes.  She and her partners then sold the homes to African-American families, and opened up the beach to people of all races.

 

She was fond of saying, “Without faith, nothing is possible. With it, nothing is impossible.”  But Scripture tells us that faith without works is dead.  Bethune is not memorable because she had faith, but because she had a faith that worked.  And she never stopped working—for equality and justice, for all.

 

And the American dream is more than just a dream to millions of people because of her.
Mary Bethune is a hero you should know. And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Heroes You Should Know: Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma

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Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma were a farming couple living Markowa, Poland with their six children when the Nazis came in 1939.  At the time, Markowa was 90% Catholic, and 10% Jewish.

 

And in 1942 the Nazis began coming for the 10%.  The majority of the Jews were massacred, but a few survived because Catholic families gave them refuge.  From the beginning of the persecution, the Ulmas were one such family.

 

Even giving a Jew a drink of water in occupied Poland was punishable by death, let alone hiding Jews.

 

But Jozef and Wiktoria took in two Jewish families anyway, and these eight neighbors lived in the attic of the home and worked on the farm alongside the Ulmas.  The farm was seen as a safe refuge, being several miles outside of town.  And for two years it was.

 

But on the morning of March 24, 1944 Nazi soldiers arrived at the Ulma farm.  They rounded up the eight Jews and shot each in the back of the head.  Then, they assassinated Jozef, the pregnant Wiktoria and all seven children.

 

But the atrocity did not have the desired effect on the townspeople the Nazi’s had hoped for.   The Ulma’s ultimate sacrifice only encouraged other families to pick up where they’d left off.  And as a result 17 Jews survived the purge in Markowa.

 

Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma were given the title Righteous Among the Nations by the Israeli government in 1995, and in 2003 their cause for cannonization was introduced in Rome.

 

Love your neighbor as yourself.  For some, these are more than just words.

 

Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma are heroes you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Freddie Gray’s Rough Ride: Why Virtue Matters

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Freddie Gray’s Rough Ride: Why Virtue Matters

I write a lot about virtue, and why it matters. And then life presents a story that is far more compelling and challenging than anything I could conjur up. The rough ride of Freddie Gray is the latest example of why we need virtue—and what happens when it is absent.

For those who haven’t read the story, Freddie Gray was arrested on a weapons charge in Baltimore. According to police reports, he was seen with a knife in his pocket, and ran when the police approached him. After a short pursuit he was arrested, according to the police report, without force or incidence.

He appeared to be able-bodied—video showed him using his legs—as he was ushered to a waiting police van at 8:54. Thirty minutes later, police called an ambulance for Gray. When he was taken out of the van at 9:24 he could not breathe, he could not talk. His spinal cord was 80 % severed. He died one week later from his injuries.

Even with the video evidence, it has not been officially decided when the injury happened. Was it as Gray was being detained? Or did it occur because he was handcuffed and put in leg irons BUT NOT SEATBELTED when he was thrown into the back of the police van—a clear violation of police protocol?

There is a history of this sort of abuse—nicknamed “rough rides” or “nickel rides”. Police drive at high speeds, making sharp turns, and stopping several times on their circuitous route to the police station, insuring that unbelted detainees are tossed around in the back of the van like poorly bagged groceries.

Now, a quick search of his rap sheet shows that there were 20 criminal court cases in Maryland against Gray, and five of them were still active at the time of his death. The cases involved mostly drug-related charges, and one involved second-degree assault and destruction of property. He was no boy scout. And none of that matters.

No one should die because he has a knife clipped to his pocket. No one should have his spinal cord 80 % severed because he spent 30 minutes with police officers.

But focusing on the behavior of the police is too easy. Clearly there was an appalling lack of virtue. Anyone with a conscience gets that. I’d like to make this a little more personal. Because that’s what’s needed if we want to become better people, and if we want this world of ours to spin out of control just a bit more slowly.

How do you read this story? How does it stir you? Do you even really care?

The fact that most of you are not poor, black males living in the inner city should make no difference. Neither should the facts that most of you enjoy good relationships with the police and never carry knives.

Virtue says you should care because Freddie Gray’s death was wrong, and avoidable, and it injures all of us. Plain and simple. But it says more than that.

We need to live differently because of this story—not just shake our heads, not just shrug our shoulders, and not just sigh in resignation. But how?

Go back and read the story again. See yourself, your son, your daughter in the face of this young man? Because until you do, until I do, until we all do, we’re not caring enough. And caring, really caring, is a good start. It’s not enough, but it’s a good start.

Virtue says that Freddie Gray’s death is not just an African-American tragedy, it is a human tragedy. And what we do…not just feel…about this man’s death tells us a lot about how serious we truly are about being good and doing good…for the Good.

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