Highest Medals Rightly Honor Selfless Heroes

Posted by on Sep 8, 2015 in Perry's Blog | 0 comments

In recent weeks there has been a great celebration in France, the United States and throughout the world. The event that triggered this admiration and awe was the heroism that took place on a train in Northern France. Three young Americans with the help of a British and a French citizen acted quickly, decisively and bravely to save the lives of many on that crowded high-speed train.

One of the ways to understand why individuals take action at times of great danger to save the lives of others is to examine the acts that earn individuals America’s highest award for civilian heroism, the Carnegie Medal.

Mr. Walter Rutkowski may have the most uplifting job in America. Every day he encounters examples of heroic acts that have taken place in various places throughout the United States. Rutkowski is the president of the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission. This Commission “awards the Carnegie Medal to individuals in America or Canada who risk their lives to an extraordinary degree saving or attempting to save the lives of others.”

The process for the selection of these awardees is both every impressive and quite systematic. A clipping service surveys hundreds of newspapers every day. It sends stories of heroic acts that appear in the press to the Pittsburgh headquarters of the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission. Each year, more than ten thousand heroic acts are identified.  The Commission also receives letters of recommendation from citizens who are aware of the Carnegie Medal and learn about heroic acts.

The staff of the Commission reads the articles and letters carefully and selects the top one thousand. At this point, serious research is done. Eyewitnesses to the event, as well as police and fire department officials, are interviewed. The commission is very careful to select acts  of extraordinary heroism to be recognized. The result—each year about 80 individuals receive the Carnegie Medal.

Rutkowski visited Augusta last year in order to attend the Jimmie Dyess Symposium at the Augusta Museum of History. He was particarly interested in how Augusta honored the only person in history to have received both the Carnegie Medal and the Medal of Honor, Marine Lieutenant Colonel Jimmie Dyess.  While he was here, Rutkowski pointed out that he has served in various positions on the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission for 40 years. To this day, he remains deeply impressed that Americans act so heroically in so many ways on a daily basis.

The military services have a number of awards to recognize heroism in non-combat arenas (the Soldier’s Medal and the Airman’s Medal are examples).  The two military men on the train will receive the Airman’s Medal (Airman Spencer Stone) and the Soldier’s Medal (National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos). The American civilian should be considered for the Carnegie Medal. Like the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, the military is very careful to recognize only those who meet a very high standard of valor.

In the one hundred and eleven years since the Carnegie Medal was established, individuals have raced into burning buildings, grabbed people who were about to be run over by oncoming trains, dived into frigid water to save drowning people, pulled children out of burning vehicles on highways, and prevented people from being knifed or shot.  About twenty five percent of these heroes died in attempts to save others.

There are many similarities in the personalities and the motivations of those who received either the Carnegie Medal or the Soldiers Medal. When recipients of either award are interviewed after their acts of great courage, their remarks are often quite similar, “Someone had to do something,” “She was in great danger, I had to help,” “I could not let him die.” This nation is well served by these awards and the stringent criteria which has made them special.

In sum, the military services and the Carnegie Hero Fund commissioners are to be congratulated for ensuring that these awards remain at such a high standard and that those few who receive them fully deserve to be so honored.

For those who wish to learn more about heroism, the following books may be helpful. A Century of Heroes by Doug Chambers (about the Carnegie Medal), The Altruistic Personality by Sam Oliner (about those—mostly Christians—-who risked their lives to save Jews in World War II) and my new book, Courage, Compassion, Marine: The Unique Story of Jimmie Dyess.  All of these books can be obtained on amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com. The latter book can also be obtained at the gift shop at Sacred Heart and at the Augusta Museum of History.

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