A Hero of Humanity Passes

May 7, 1921, February 20, 2014.  Two dates.  Birth and death.  Those were the days my friend Walt Ehlers was born, and when he died.  Dates don’t tell you much.  The wake of Walt’s life is wide indeed.Walt was the first Medal of Honor recipient I ever met.  Of course, you are supposed to be impressed by a MOH recipient.  After all, they didn’t receive the nation’s highest military honor for nothing.  A good friend introduced me.  We used to see each other at least once a year, and exchanged Christmas cards.  I used to pinch myself when I received a Christmas card from Walt.  How many people get a written note from a true hero?  

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had been lucky enough to walk Omaha Beach the summer before I met him.  I still don’t know how our troops won the day.  Graciously, he agreed to have breakfast with my children since they had walked the same beach.  We had a great breakfast, and he engaged with my kids.

But, it was after I got to know Walt that I was really touched by him.  Touched by his lack of ego.  Touched by how he carried himself.  He didn’t downplay the Medal.  He had too much respect for it. Walt was able to touch people in ways that they wouldn’t have imagined prior to meeting him.  He touched me personally.  But, I was lucky.

Walt could recount many war stories.  Ironically, once he told me D-Day wasn’t even his worst battle!! But the real interesting thing about Walt and virtually every Medal of Honor recipient I have ever met is their true concern for all of us as human beings.  Walt was like Yoda.  You could feel The Force around him.  There was an aura around him and he shared it freely with anyone he could.  You could have the Force behind you too!

I learned a lot about the Medal from Walt.  It truly isn’t about the people living with those blue ribbons around their necks.  It is about their friends that aren’t with us.  It extends to all the soldiers in all the wars our country ever fought for freedom that are no longer.  There are only 75 living left in the US.  We need to cherish them, learn from them, and try to live up to the standards that they set for us.

Ironically, you’d think wearing a medal like that with so much responsibility would be an albatross.  It isn’t.  They are some of the freest people I have ever met.  They have seen the worst humanity has to offer, survived, and more importantly helped others survive it.  Somehow, going through what they went through and confronting your deepest fears changes you in ways that we wouldn’t have imagined.

Perhaps the greatest thing that Walt gave me was the realization that if the time were right, and my training was right, I could do what he did.  If not him, me?  Or someone else. If not now, when?  I gulp when I think about it.  If I were honest with myself, I’d also allow myself to realize the sense of fear that creeps through my body.  You’d like to know that you could do what they did-but in your gut there is a piece of you that wonders.  But, if someone like Walt was with me, I’d follow him through the fires of hell and not think twice about it.  He was that kind of person.

Walt was able to bring out the best in people.  Hopefully, we can all be like him. He left a great family.  He left a lot of friends that are sad today.  Please take a brief pause out of your day today and think about him, and his family.  Think about what he and his fellow brothers in arms did for our country.

I met him first in 2006.  8 years in a 92 year life.  But, I got to see some of the best of him.  And I treasure each and every moment.  Walt is one primary reason why I am on the Board of Trustees of the National World War Two Museum in New Orleans, LA.-and so passionate about it.  Because, they aren’t just dates in a book-or places on a map.  They were human beings just like you and me.  We are them, and they are us, just in a different time and place.

Here is a snippet of an interview Walt did about his action in Normandy.  We are lucky to live in a country like America, and we are lucky to have people that live here like Walt Ehlers.  When a President says “God Bless the United States of America”, they are talking about us-and about people like Walt.
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