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What do they got that I ain't got? Courage

by Col. Charles E. Potter

6th Medical Group commander

"What makes a King out of a slave? What makes the flag on the mast to wave? What makes the elephant charge his tusk, into the misty mist or the dusky dusk? What makes the muskrat guard his musk? What makes the sphinx the seventh wonder? What makes the dawn come up like thunder? What makes the hotten tot so hot? What puts the ape in apricot? What do they got that I ain't got…courage"

Some of you may recall those immortal words uttered by Bert Lair, better known as the Cowardly Lion, in the 1939 MGM production of L. Frank Baum's classic film "The Wizard of Oz." Courage, that magic, nebulous little seven letter word, is the cement that binds every aspect of human physical, mental and spiritual endeavors.

The Cowardly Lion sought his courage. We don't know if he lost it, or never had it, but the irony here is that we assume the lion to represent the epitome of courage, not unlike how the American people view today's military professional.

We are all familiar with the core values that each member of the Air Force is expected to possess - integrity, service before self and excellence in all we do. But it would truly be a hollow force if those core values were not firmly rooted in courage. Like poorly tempered steel, we would break the moment we were placed under stress.

We all want a military filled with courageous warriors, but I think it is important to understand that courage has a much deeper meaning than performing well in the face of danger. In preparing this article, I read several definitions of courage, but in the end decided to write my own. I believe courage is having the quality of spirit to do the right thing in the face of one's fears, with tenacity, confidence and resolution.

By that definition, courage is not simply performing well in dangerous situations. Courage is conquering your own fear in order to do the right thing. Of course, what we fear can be external danger, but it can also be internal doubts.

I think we can all agree that jumping out of an airplane to save a downed pilot takes courage. Even more so if the thought of reaching the ground before the airplane leaves puddles of sweat in your boots. I think we can agree that it takes courage for a police officer to arrest a dangerous drug dealer. But, it also takes courage for a kid to say no when a friend offers him drugs. He is in no physical danger, but he is risking two things that many kids fear most -- ridicule and isolation.

Greatest of all are those among us who overcome both internal fear and external danger to do the right thing. Does it take courage to ride a city bus? It does if your name is Rosa Parks and you're facing certain arrest for refusing to give up your seat to a white man and move to the back of the bus. Mrs. Parks felt freedom, equality, justice and prosperity for all people were so important she was able to overcome any fears she may have had. Today none of us would stand still for segregated city buses, but that's a direct result of an act of courage.

Do you have courage? It is entirely possible that you don't know. Until you are faced with a situation that demands you act in the face of your fears, you can't be certain that you have courage.

Is there anything we can do to improve the odds that we will act with courage when the time comes? Yes…. practice. Vegetius said in Book I of the De Re Militari, "The courage of a soldier is heightened by his knowledge of his profession." Practice can help us overcome both our internal fear, and fear of physical danger.

If a fighter pilot practices until he can perform his mission by rote memory, his fear is more easily controlled when he comes under fire. Just as practicing rescue missions increases the odds that a PJ will perform well behind enemy lines, a person who spends time reflecting on his or her own core values is in a better position to act on them when they are put to the test.

Practice how you would act if you were at a party and someone brought out drugs. Ask yourself before you go out for a night on the town, how will I get home if I have too much to drink?

It all comes down to choices - the choices we make under fire. Imagine for a moment what courage it took to go "Over the Top" in World War I, knowing that millions before you were mowed down by machine gun fire and artillery barrages that shook the earth, or to storm the beaches of Normandy knowing that as soon as the landing craft hit the beach and the door opened, that you would be facing an enemy who had built fortifications for almost 4 years! Or think what it was like to walk in the jungles of Vietnam, not knowing who was friend or foe. If you think about all of that, it makes that decision whether to take that extra drink and pick up your keys a little easier.

Consider in advance how you would act if your core values were put to the test or if you faced the ultimate test of battle and I'm sure that you, like the Cowardly Lion, will rise to the occasion.

The Wizard of Oz knew that the potential for courage is in all of us. Remember his response to the Cowardly Lion's request: "As for you my fine friend, you are a victim of disorganized thinking. You are operating under the delusion that simply because you run away from danger, you have no courage. You're confusing courage with wisdom.

Back where I come from, we have men who are called heroes, and once a year they take their fortitude out of mothballs, and parade it down the main streets of the city. They have no more courage than you've got, but, they have one thing you haven't got --a medal.

Therefore, for meritorious conduct, extraordinary valor, and conspicuous bravery against wicked witches, I award you the Triple Cross. You are now a member of the legion of courage." And as the Wizard kissed him on both cheeks the Lion responded: "Awe shucks folks, I'm speechless."

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