Uncommon Valor

Uncommon Valor

My father died last year.  He had just turned 70 years old.    The official diagnosis was Agent Orange Related Parkinson’s Disease.   The official cause of death was asphyxiation.   He died choking on his own blood.  And though he may have died on January 29, 2020, the truth is, Agent Orange exposure killed him 50 years before.  

For the first two years of their marriage, my mom was the recipient of many a late-night trip to the floor as my father would grab her and toss her,  yelling “incoming.” The only story I had ever heard about his time in Vietnam was one in which he was riding shotgun, holding a gun, as their convoy passed through a small village.   As was often the case, the villagers in town would gather on each side of the road as the soldiers would throw provisions and food to them.  

The young Vietnamese children would run up yelling, “chop, chop,” which meant candy.   My Dad said he often knew when they were among the Viet Cong because no one gathered.   But this particular day, as the crowd parted, a young Vietnamese girl about four years old walked from the crowd and stopped about 20 feet ahead of them.  My father saw the grenade.  As the truck stopped, he got out and slowly made his way over to her.  He spoke to her in Vietnamese and asked her to drop it.  He asked again, and he asked again.  But the child reached for the pin. In one fail swoop, my father made a decision that changed his view of life forever. 

The only other story I have heard about my Dad, and Vietnam, came last week at his service. This letter was written by one of my Dad’s platoon buddies. Jay had reached out to my Dad via email before he died, but my Dad could not respond. So after letting him know about the email, Reverend Apple decided to reach out to Jay. This is the letter that Reverend Apple read…

Hello Reverend Apple,

Thanks so much for letting me know about Glenn’s passing.  I am sorry to hear that he is gone and wish we might have had the opportunity to reconnect.   My thoughts and prayers are with his family.

Glenn saved my life on Easter Sunday 1969 (April 6) in a clearing in the jungle near Black Virgin Mountain Nui Be Den) in Vietnam.  Our company’s lead platoon was ambushed earlier in the afternoon. Two men either killed or badly injured lying in the clearing, exposed to fire from North Vietnamese Army soldiers concealed in well-camouflaged bunkers.   Our platoon was called forward to try to reach the casualties, and the platoon leader instructed me to send a fire team (3-4 guys) forward toward the nearest body to pull it back. 

Leading the team, I crawled across the clearing but was suddenly hit by a burst of fire from an AK-47, which tore my rifle from my hands and also punctured my left lung, just missed my heart, and wedged within an inch of my spine.  About the same time, a rocket-propelled grenade went off in a tree at the edge of the clearing, and I was also spattered with shrapnel.  I did some serious praying, and God sent Glenn Dale and the platoon leader across that bullet-swept field to pull me back. Unfortunately, the enemy was still very much present, as I was shot again in the leg after being pulled back to our side of the clearing. 

I suspect Glenn did not receive an award for bravery for his actions that day (enlisted men seldom did). Still, he certainly deserved to do so, as he openly exposed himself to the enemy fire to carry me to safety.  Without his action, I would certainly have died there and then.

Later in the afternoon, I almost missed the medevac helicopter, as they thought I was a goner.  When I finally lay on an operating table at a MASH hospital in Tay Ninh, a priest gave me the last rites. You cannot imagine my surprise when I awoke the following day.  I spent the rest of 1969 in military hospitals until discharged – from the hospital and the army – on December 31, 1969.

Please express my condolences and my eternal thanks to Glenn’s family for sending him to me on that Easter over a half-century ago.

Jay Phillips

Running the Path

Running the Path

The other day my neighbor came over for coffee.  She seemed a bit down and out and told me she was thinking about running.  She said she wanted to feel better about her body, and that losing some weight would make her feel better about herself.   She told me she had never run before, and wanted to pick my brain on how to run.   I smiled and said, “Go put on some running shoes and run!  Don’t overthink it.   Just go for a run.  Don’t worry about how fast you are, how long your run is, or how many times you had to stop to catch your breath.  Just go run.”  I remember not being able to run ¼ mile without stopping.  Now I run a full 8 miles without resting once.   I started by simply putting one foot in front of the other.  “But,” I also cautioned her, “it’s not the weight you lose from running that makes you feel good about yourself.  Weight loss is an extrinsic motivator and will likely be a reason you stop running.  Don’t seek to be a size two.  Instead seek dedication, consistency, and persistence.  They will make you feel better about yourself.”  Change your vernacular and you will change your life.

Like yoga, running has changed my life.  It’s become a way for me to quiet my mind.  It is like a moving meditation.   I focus solely on my breath and let go of all tension and thought.   When I hit my stride, I feel like I could run forever.   I achieve the same state when I stay in certain deep asanas, like pigeon, for a long time.   It’s the best feeling in the world.  If I am in a bad mood, anxious, stuck creatively, whatever is going on, I will go for a run, or do some flows.  And when I’m done, all is well again.

When I look back over the last year, hell, over the last decade… I am proud to say I have accomplished much.   I have gained a lot, learned a lot, but also forgotten much, and lost a lot.   I have reached some goals that I never imagined possible, while I watched other dreams go up in smoke…but that, as they say “is life.”    The “one foot in front of the other” mentality has served me well, until now.   Lately, I feel fearful and uncertain about some big things in my life.  And the truth is, I don’t really know why.  Life has pretty much stayed the same.  But then I think maybe that’s the reason I feel this way.  The Buddha said, “There is no fear for one whose mind is not filled with desires.”  I get it, I want more.  But thinking about my future is almost paralyzing.   It was the Buddha who said, “Overthinking is the greatest cause of unhappiness.”  So perhaps silence is best.  Who knows, maybe I’ll slow down and give silent meditation a try.  Or maybe I’ll just go for a longer run.  🙂

With that, Happy New Year’s and Happy New Decade.  May you have many abundant blessings, and may you get back all that you give.  Remember to seek out joy, as it is always there for us. May you find peace in any given moment, and may you do hard and scary things!  Grow abundantly!  Namaste!

The Road Less Traveled

The Road Less Traveled

Next week, I have been asked to speak to a group of middle school girls about body image and self-esteem. Lately, these buzzwords have gained momentum in our culture, a culture laden with false narratives and inaccuracies about value and self-worth. Many expert responses to this narrative, while encouraging, often lack depth and therefore do not resonate or connect with their intended audience. So I knew my words had to be carefully chosen, intentional, and authentic. In other words, they had to come from the experiences gleaned by traveling down a dark and winding road called self-actualization.

Self-image is simply the story we tell ourselves about who and what we are.  Our stories define our self-esteem, (the manner in which we evaluate ourselves), and our self-worth, (the belief that we are loveable and valuable despite how we evaluate our traits). To make things more complicated our stories are usually co-written by those around us, people who may have the best intentions, but are likely struggling with their own confusing falsehoods.  Add to the fact that human nature is inherently geared toward the negative for survival purposes, and it’s no wonder we are sometimes left feeling insecure and at odds with the world.  All of these elements perpetuate the inaccuracies of our true selves; this leads us to internalize and criticize ourselves, generally culminating in some kind of unwanted behavior.   In some, this may mean eating disorders, drug abuse, and in extreme cases, suicide.

So what is a girl to do?   The first and most important step is to be present and not unconsciously respond to stimuli.  Life is not about what happens to you, but how you respond to life.   Being present allows us to analyze our behavior; it helps us assess our feelings and thoughts, and allows us to take a much-needed breath or two.  Frankly, it is the most powerful tool in the box.  The next step is to realize that we have a choice to rewrite the script.   The words we choose to use, the ideas that we embrace about ourselves are ultimately up to us.   We are not what others say we are unless WE choose to embrace it and believe it.  We are no longer fighting saber tooth tigers; we are fighting against ambiguous texts, simulated fantasies on social media, and trying to adhere to the impossible task that we must be all things to all people.  

What is my suggestion to these young girls? Instead of trying to be something…just be. Be your imperfectly perfect selves, work hard, be honorable, and stay humble. Don’t worry about being good or being right. In fact, don’t worry at all. Have faith and fear not, because fear will hold you hostage. Be brave and explore the paths less traveled. Do hard things. In fact, seek out things that make you afraid and uncomfortable and do them. Then you will begin to see what you’re truly made of. We are not confined to a future that has yet to be written. Our destiny and fate can change from moment to moment. Who are you? Who do you want to be? Because for better or worse, what you believe, you will achieve.