Early into our family’s extended holiday vacation in Georgia with my in-laws, I made a very foolish mistake while hiking with my four older children. It had been wet and rainy, and we reached a very slick length of rock. Stubborn to reach the top and see the view, I pushed my children on, not fully appreciating the difficulties we would encounter on our return down.
It was dangerous and a foolhardy decision, especially given that I would need to carry my two-year-old boy down that mountain. There were many tears from children, and much slipping on bald rock as we slowly, often on all fours, made the descent. And I needed my sure-footed nine-year-old daughter to keep her nerve because she was the one most capable of helping me with the younger kids. I’ve never been more thankful for her ballet training in all my life.
But I’m also grateful for her fortitude—and that of my other children, who through their tears (and my encouragement and prayers) kept carefully moving forward and eventually reached safety. Perhaps Dad had lacked prudence, but at least my kids found themselves capable of mustering satisfactory courage to maintain their composure and soldier on.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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It doesn’t take much to acquire the moniker of courageous in our day. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, we’re told (often by them) are supposedly paragons of courage. Celebrities praise each other as brave for, among other things, getting divorced. We are told LGBTQ+ folks are courageous whenever they come out of the closet. Children’s literature tells our kids they exemplify bravery by being little political activists.
In other ways, however, we are a culture defined by our cowardice. Few celebrities, regardless of their personal opinions, are willing to stand up for unpopular positions regarding sexuality, abortion, or identity politics. Much is made of the toxicity of social media, but less is said about the anonymity of those spewing vitriol and hatred online while hiding in their basements, which proves their cowardice. Or how about the many Christian leaders who have abandoned biblical truth for fear of being labeled bigots?
We are in need of heroes who can inspire within us a desire for true courage. And I don’t mean people who play in Super Bowls or win the latest season of The Voice. One such American hero was Navy SEAL Michael A. Monsoor, who is honored in a new book, Defend Us in Battle, co-authored by his father, George, and writer Rose Rea.
Michael, the child of devout Catholic parents, grew up in southern California with his three siblings. He played high school football, and, shortly before his twentieth birthday, enlisted in the U.S. Navy. It was six months before 9-11. Four years later, in 2005, he graduated from SEAL qualification training at Coronado, California.
One year after that, in 2006, Michael was in Ramadi, Iraq, fighting an insurgency led by al-Qaeda in Iraq, a precursor of the Islamic State, or ISIL. Shortly after arriving, Michael sought out a chaplain, Fr. Paul Halladay, for confession. (Small world: Fr. Halladay was, for a brief time, my chaplain during one of my tours in Afghanistan).
Michael served as a machine-gunner on patrols, and he was regularly involved in heavy fighting with insurgent fighters on the dusty, scorching-hot streets of Ramadi. During one engagement, in May, Michael came to the help of an injured fellow SEAL, braving insurgent gunfire to rescue him. He was awarded the Silver Star for this action. Though Michael had the option to depart Ramadi in September, 2006, he volunteered to stay “for a few more operations” so that another SEAL on his team could return to the United States to be with his pregnant wife.
Only a few days later, Monsoor’s platoon and a few Iraqi soldiers took up a rooftop position in anticipation of an insurgent attack. Civilians, apparently helping the insurgents, set up trash blockades; a nearby mosque used its megaphone to urge locals to attack the Americans. Insurgents fired what seemed like an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) at their position. An object cleared the wall and hit Michael square in the chest, bounced off, and rolled onto the ground in front of him. It was a grenade.
Michael “lunged forward dropping directly onto the grenade,” thus absorbing most of the force of the blast. Soon thereafter, the soldiers were evacuated from the position. Two other SEALs, Doug and Mike, were injured by the grenade explosion but survived. Michael died thirty minutes later. “He had freely exchanged his life for theirs,” write Monsoor and Rea. It was the Feast Day of St. Michael the Archangel. Michael was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. A Zumwalt-class of destroyer and a SEAL training facility now bear his name.
Obviously, Michael possessed courage, not just on that fateful day in September 2006, but many other days before that. Moreover, his desire to seek out a confessor shortly after his arrival in Iraq suggests an inner disposition oriented toward virtue—he wanted to prepare his soul for the deadly encounters that awaited him. And, as Defend Us in Battle indicates, Monsoor’s entire life was defined by little acts of heroism that sharpened his virtue.
Indeed, what strikes me most about Monsoor’s action on that rooftop in Ramadi is how unhesitatingly he performed it. He did not have time to deliberate, but I don’t think he needed it. He was a man defined by a singular devotion to the good: God, family, country, his fellow servicemen. Virtue was his life, so when the most difficult, most harrowing decisions were presented to him, he knew what to choose. “Greater love has no man than this…” (John 15:13).
By this author:
The Persecuted$9.95 – $18.95
Courage is not a onetime choice. It is one we must make every day. We choose it through sacrifices, prayer, the sacraments, and moral living. We choose it by removing destructive habits and sins from our life. Nor is courage just overcoming a fear, like what some people might think of us. Indeed, what passes for courage today is often doing something immoral that our degraded culture celebrates for its “authenticity” and what Robert Bellah calls “expressive individualism.”
No, courage is something far rarer than that. Real courage is something most people will look at and say “I’m glad it’s him and not me!” But it can become second nature to us, if we allow God and His grace to properly form us. And, given what we Catholics face today, we could certainly benefit from some more of it. As we ponder this new year, Monsoor’s life—and death—offer an inspiring exemplar of what is required if we, too, desire to acquire true courage.
[Photo: Petty Officer Second Class (SEAL) Michael A. Monsoor( Credit: U.S. Navy Office of Information)]