I’ve been slowly working my way through Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight movie trilogy. I like Batman because he is one of those rare superheroes who, like Iron Man and Captain America, doesn’t possess any superhuman powers. He is just someone who decides to use the resources he has to do what he can to rid the world of evil. Underneath his mask and cape, he’s a flesh-and-blood man who bruises and feels pain, but he’s willing to risk his own life for the good of others.
We had just finished watching the second movie, The Dark Knight, Saturday afternoon when I heard Colonel George “Bud” Day had passed away.
Colonel Day was one of America’s most highly decorated servicemen. He received the United States of America’s highest military honor, the Medal of Honor, for his bravery and heroism during the Vietnam War. On August 26, 1967, Colonel Day was leading a secret air mission over North Vietnam when ground fire hit his plane, forcing him to eject. When he ejected, he hit the fuselage of his plane, breaking his right arm in three places and injuring his eye and back. He was captured and tortured in a small shelter. On the fifth day, Colonel Day escaped, and without his flight suit or boots, evaded capture for over two weeks. He crossed the Demilitarized Zone and was within two miles of a US Marine firebase when he was shot in the leg and hand and captured by a Viet Cong patrol. He was tortured and his right arm was broken again as a result. Eventually, Colonel Day’s captors moved him to what is commonly called the Hanoi Hilton. He was cellmates with John McCain, who calls him “the bravest person I’ve ever known.” Day after excruciating day, he endured torture as he resisted his captors and served as an example to his comrades.
Meanwhile, Bud Day’s wife Doris was home with their four children. Although you won’t find nearly as much written about Mrs. Day, or “The Viking,” as Bud affectionately called her, she serves as a hero to every military spouse who has watched his or her best friend leave for duty. The wives of the POWs were given appallingly little information about their husbands during their captivity. Very little support was given to these families and their husband’s plight was not discussed in the media until enough family members joined together to make a difference. Doris Day joined other family members as part of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia (NLOF). This organization worked tirelessly to get information about their loved ones and to spread news throughout the country, begging others not to forget about the POWs. Their efforts led to many positive changes for military spouses and families whose effects are still felt today.
On March 14, 1973, over five years since his capture, Colonel Bud Day was released, but he was not the same man who had left for Vietnam in 1967. Besides the lasting effects of his physical injuries, he suffered from the mental and emotional scars of his experience for the rest of his life. After his military retirement, Colonel Day continued to fight for others when he championed the cause of veterans in their fight to keep the medical benefits they’d been promised when they joined the military.
We had the opportunity to get to know Bud and Doris Day personally when we lived in Florida. When I first met Colonel Day, I saw the Medal of Honor around his neck and knew enough about the award to know he must be a brave man, but I didn’t know his story. The historian of the wing where my husband worked gave me a book about Colonel Day. Kelly was away on business and I stayed up all night reading. The book was not the most well-written work I’ve ever read, but Colonel Day’s story changed me. I had never read in any detail an account of the treatment our POWs received and what I read chilled me to the bone.
The next time I saw Colonel Day I wanted desperately to thank him for his service and I tried to explain what reading his story had meant to me. Instead I blurted out a few incoherent phrases and my eyes filled with tears. Colonel Day smiled and gently patted my cheek. For the rest of the time we lived in Florida, we had several opportunities to spend time with the Days. I grew to love them, not only for the brave things they had done, but for the wonderful people they were.
I wanted my children to know Colonel and Mrs. Day. The word “hero” is thrown around in our culture, but I think we define the term too broadly. Basketball players are not heroes because they know how to make shots and jump high. Football players are not heroes because they can catch a ball and make touchdowns. Actors are not heroes because they make entertaining movies. Heroes do brave things. Heroes do hard things. Heroes don’t act in order to receive a reward, they do what they do because they believe it’s right. To me a hero thinks of others before he thinks of himself. Colonel and Mrs. Day are two of my heroes. I want my children to hear the word “hero” and not always think of the youngest, most athletic person in the room. I want them to hear “hero,” and see a man whose body was broken and stooped, but whose eyes still held a twinkle and a fiery passion. A man who believed his country was worth his best. A man who fought so others could be free even if it meant he would not be.
This was a difficult post to write. One of the most difficult. I’m not an author. Many others have written much more eloquently and in greater detail about what a great man George “Bud” Day was and what he meant to our country. I sincerely hope you’ll read their words. But this post is very personal to me. I use words to show love. When I write, I am giving a piece of myself to whomever wants to read my words. This piece of myself is precious to me because I loved Bud Day. It was one of my greatest honors to get to spend time with him and with his amazing wife.
I really wanted to get this post right. But just when I counted on them, once again my words have failed me, because, try as I might, I can’t put them together in just the right way to truly express how I feel and what Bud and Doris Day mean to me. Ever since Saturday night I’ve been trying to piece words and phrases together to write something to give you some idea of who George “Bud” Day was and why his life mattered so much to me. This post is my meager but honest attempt to honor him with my words.
Colonel Day was not a god or even a demi-god. He believed in the one true God and his faith in his God was of the utmost importance to him. He relied on a power greater than himself. He believed God spared his life on more than occasion in order to use him to make a difference for others.
Bud Day believed in doing the right thing, even if it was hard. He stood up for what he believed, even when it wasn’t what everyone else believed. When others would have given up the fight, Bud Day dug deeper into himself and fought harder.
In one of the final scenes of The Dark Knight Rises, Batman says to Inspector Gordon, “A hero can be anyone.” I believe that’s true, but not everyone is willing to be a hero. Bud Day was willing. He didn’t have any superhuman powers. I doubt he would have considered himself a superhero, but Bud Day was one of mine. And I will miss him.
Here are some links to stories and videos about Colonel Day that do a much better job of describing his actions:
http://youtu.be/LIq7A073N10 (Colonel Day in his own words)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bxH1GnQPEqE (Senator John McCain’s remarks about Colonel Day from the Senate floor)