Sunday, November 9, 2008

One of my heroes...

I want to take a break from Dr. Seuss for a special Veteran's Day blog. As many of you know, I served seven years in the Illinois Army National Guard and deployed overseas three times during that service, with one of those deployments being a year of combat-service in Iraq. This blog, however, is not about my service. You see, I will not be thinking about what I did this Veteran's Day. Instead, my thoughts will be with those still serving and those whose service was the last, great thing they accomplished for this world. I had the privilege of knowing, and serving with, just such a man. His name was Specialist Justin Penrod.

Penrod and I did not always see eye-to-eye, but I always knew that when the time came, he would have my back. That was the kind of guy Penrod was. He had not lived a very charmed life, but I believe somehow there was great character sitting dormant within him all along, waiting for an awakening. During high school, Penrod had a lot of discipline problems, both in school and in the community. Finally, in an effort to change the direction of his life, he was enrolled in a military-based alternative education program, which would teach him discipline and allow him to earn his GED.

This experience changed Penrod so profoundly, that he did not want to abandon it. Instead, he joined the National Guard in order to continue on with the great tradition of military service that he had learned from his instructors to respect so greatly. In addition, Penrod returned after basic training to the school which had taught him so much, and became an instructor himself. While there, he became a role-model for many young men, some of which have followed in his footsteps and are currently serving their country as a direct result of Penrod's influence on their lives. It was during this period of his life that I met Penrod and grew to respect him.

After our deployment to Iraq, Penrod, who married his wife only a few days before we shipped out, became a father. His son was born severely premature and had all of the medical problems that accompany such a birth. For weeks, the tiny child was hospitalized, and no matter how long the drive, or how many other things needed to be done, Penrod could always be found making visits to the hospital to be with his son. You see, for Penrod, this child more important than anything else he could ever accomplish. Fatherhood will have that affect on a great man.

Before long, it became clear that Penrod's civilian job and insurance would not be enough to handle the medical expenses for his son, both presently and in the future. When this realization hit, Penrod did not hesitate, but marched immediately to the recruiting station and signed an active duty contract. While serving on active duty, Penrod's son would be completely covered for any and all medical treatment. The inevitability of another tour in Iraq or Afghanistan did not phase Penrod, because the only thing he cared about was making sure his son would be taken care of. In basic training, we are taught to be selfless, Penrod showed his selflessness in a way that few ever could.

Not surprisingly, Penrod was deployed to Iraq with his new unit shortly after arriving on active duty. He made it to Iraq in July of 2007 to begin his second tour only a year after completing his first. One month into this second tour, Penrod was on a combat patrol, something he had done a hundred times before. This time, his patrol was walking down a street and began taking sniper fire from a nearby rooftop. Without hesitation, Penrod and three other soldiers set out to assault the building and take out the shooter. Moments after busting through the door, Penrod and the other soldiers fell victim to explosives planted in the house. He died the way he lived: selflessly trying to help others.

The remarkable thing about Penrod's story is that if you could ask him, he would tell you he was unremarkable. The inspiring thing about Penrod's story is that if you had the time, you would probably find that the story of every American service member who has given their life for this country is just as remarkable. You see, it takes a special quality in a human being to be willing to die so that others may live, so it should come as no surprise to find that those who have done it are truly special people.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Oh, the Places You'll Go!

Not long ago, I was getting my daughter ready for bed, and she asked me to read her a book. I went to her bookcase, and pulled the first Dr. Seuss book I saw. It just happened to be Oh, the Places You'll Go!, and as I began to read, I realized that this book is much more than a fun tongue-twister. The message it delivers is so important that it seems wasteful to have it hidden in a children's book. For this reason, I have decided to discuss it on my blog -one of the most powerful and influential sites on the entire world-wide web.

Almost immediately, Dr. Seuss hits us with a realization that many of us struggle to deny, but ultimately have to accept: "You're on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy [or gal] who'll decide where to go." Now, we are not really on our own; most of us have family, friends, teachers, or others who are available to give us support when we need it, but what he is trying to say is that we are the ones who, in the end, are responsible for our direction. All of the outside influences in the world cannot relieve us of our responsibility for which path we take. This premise is the base for Seuss' entire book.

The story follows our unnamed hero as he wanders through Seuss' world of fancifully named creatures and mysterious places. One place that causes some real issues is "The Waiting Place." We are warned to avoid getting caught in this place, where everyone is just sitting around waiting for something to happen. Oh, how many of us find ourselves guilty of this in our lives? We tell ourselves that things will really start to happen when this thing or that thing comes true, and we just wait. Living is an activity that must be done, not waited for. The sooner we realize that things don't happen to us, we happen to them, the sooner we begin to see ourselves achieving goals instead of waiting on them.

The greatest thing about the book, though, is that the lesson does not end with just one insight, or even two. The entire text is a handbook on life, but maybe more directly, the teenage years. Last Saturday, our fine football team made the trip to Quincy for the first ever appearance of the Paris Tigers in the state playoffs. All year, we have seen this team show how special they are by beating teams like Charleston and making a run at Effingham, only to see them defeated by a bunch of no-good cheaters who shouldn't even be allowed to play in the same playoff schedule with us because they are a bunch of cheating cheaters... but I digress. The important thing to remember is that while they may not have been the best team on the field last weekend, they were the best football team this town has had the opportunity to get behind, and that, in itself, is special.

And the magical things you can do with that ball will make you the winning-est winner of all. Fame! You'll be famous as famous can be, with the whole wide world watching you win on TV. Except when they don't. Because, sometimes, they won't.

Dr. Seuss reminds us that even during times when it seems like we can't lose, eventually we will, and realizing that it is not the end of the road, not even a speed bump, is what makes us special. We can pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and tackle the next challenge wiser for our experiences.

I could go on for pages about the lessons in this book and how they apply to high school students, but I will not. Instead, let me just say that, "be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O'Shea", pick a Dr. Seuss book and look for the meaning beyond the madness.