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March 29, 2014

Admiral Jeremiah Denton, An American Hero

Know, all who see these lines,
that this man,
By his appetite for honor,
By his steadfastness,
By his love for his country,
By his courage,
Was one of the miracles of the god.

- Guy Gavriel Kay, The Lions of Al-Rassan

We live in a superficial age where what is true, honorable, just, pure, commendable or praiseworthy stands little chance against the sensational, shocking, or prurient. Like flotsam, we drift (or are propelled) aimlessly; continually distracted by a torrent of lurid images, stories, and disconnected bits of information. An outsider might well wonder why any sane person would voluntarily choose to swim in such muddy water. But there are benefits associated with choosing to relax and go with the flow.

Reflected back at us in the warped mirror of moral relativism, our own lapses seem tiny. Hardly worth noting. Relatively speaking, we are paragons. And so we gradually stop paddling, stop resisting, cease to fight (or even, eventually, to notice) the current that sweeps us along. What once frightened and repelled us now seems normal. Comfortable, even. Come on in: the water's fine. Everyone else is waiting for you.

But from the corner of our eye, we catch a glimpse of a tall man striding across the riverbank. He walks with a bit of limp, and in his eyes lurk shadows that hint at unimaginable horrors:

When Denton recalls his trials in Vietnam, his eyes are often closed. For two and a half years, he spent 17 to 18 hours a day in irons. Alone, in a coffin-sized cell, he had to remain on a 47-inch-by-47-inch square during the day. It was just long enough to walk two paces. At night, he slept on a stone slab. "It wasn't the Hilton," Denton said. There were no windows. Just a 10-watt bulb, roaches and spiders the size of tarantulas. "Jesus was with me all the time," said Denton, who is a devout Catholic. His proudest moment was conquering his claustrophobia. Denton said during that time, he was in an "extremely intellectual and spiritual state." He said it is amazing what the mind can accomplish, if given the opportunity.

He once derived the formula for centrifugal force in his head, something he couldn’t do with pencil and paper at the U.S. Naval Academy. Although the other captives had designated Denton "president of the optimist club," there were times he prayed to die. He didn't want to -- couldn't -- endure another minute of despair. Once, when Denton refused to tell guards how the Americans communicated with each other, he was tortured for 10 days and nights. By the 10th night, he couldn't think anymore. He couldn’t pray anymore.

Denton surrendered. Not to the guards, but to God. "It was a total surrender," he said. "If there was anymore to do, you will do it," he told God. "That instant, I felt zero pain," he said. "I felt the greatest comfort and reassurance in life that I haven’t felt since."

Whatever it is we have glimpsed in those eyes, it has not broken him. Nor can it ever diminish him, because alongside the deep lines remembered pain and fear have etched into his face there is also grace and strength. As we watch silently, he stands a bit taller; straightens his shoulders and waves. Calling out in a voice that easily carries above the dull roar of the water, he says, "Don't give in! Don't give up. There is so much more than just this moment."

You could be so much more. We all can be.

But swimming in these waters for so long has left us weary and cynical. It has left us unable to distinguish between that which merely glitters and true gold.

The word hero has become something of a debased coinage. Tolerance shaves around the edges of the coin, gradually reducing its size and weight while millions of tiny collisions with the culture of self esteem and careful refusal to judge wear it thinner and thinner each day. Some notice that the coin seems to have shrunk in size, but when they reach for a ruler to demonstrate this, no one can find one.

We threw them all away.

Rulers are harsh, unyielding. They tell us something we don't really want to hear; that an inch is still an inch no matter how badly we would like it to be something more. That we don't quite measure up. That we need to try harder, be more, care more, do more. That there is some objective standard that exists outside our own needs and desires.

Some men's lives serve to remind us that there are still standards, still ways to measure ourselves against the eternal. Admiral Jeremiah Denton was such a man. Underneath the tears and the anger and the sick feeling today's news brings there is something else - something that will stand as Jeremiah Denton's legacy.

Faith. Abiding faith that man is not meant, as so many have argued, to be the measure of all things.

I shall think of this good, good man walking along a peaceful, crystal clean river in the presence of the Father who never once left his side. May he dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness
for his name's sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley
of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me
in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.


Via Powerline, a story I had not heard about Admiral Denton. When the plane carrying American POWs back home landed at Clark AFB in 1973, Adm. Denton spoke these words:

“We are honored to have had the opportunity to serve our country under difficult circumstances. We are profoundly grateful to our Commander-in-Chief and to our nation for this day. God bless America.”

More here and over at Memeorandum.

Posted by Cassandra at March 29, 2014 10:00 AM

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Beautiful, my friend.

Posted by: DL Sly at March 29, 2014 11:35 AM

I cannot believe he is gone.

It feel like the end of an age.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 29, 2014 11:43 AM

As I've watched so many of the movie stars from my childhood reach their zenith this past few years, I'm reminded more and more of how precious is the time we have on this mortal coil. Makes me appreciate those *unfortunates* who have gotten stuck with a reprobate like me for a friend.

Posted by: DL Sly at March 29, 2014 11:47 AM

One of your very best, Cassandra. Thank you.

Posted by: htom at March 29, 2014 12:06 PM

Some notice that the coin seems to have shrunk in size, but when they reach for a ruler to demonstrate this, no one can find one.

We threw them all away.

What an outstanding turn of phrase. Excellent piece throughout.

Posted by: Grim at March 29, 2014 04:43 PM

I always enjoy your posts, and have read you for years, almost never feeling the need to add my poor words to what you say. But sometimes, and this is one of them, your words go directly to the root of what America is about, for me at least.

In the common phrase this is a home run, really a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth. It sums up what I was taught was America, and hints at why I feel unsatisfied with her today.

Thank you, Ma'am.

Posted by: NEO at March 29, 2014 09:22 PM

Denton & Stockwell; giants among men.

Posted by: CAPT Mike at March 29, 2014 09:27 PM

Thank you for the kind words, and for being willing to listen :)

I was surprised how much hearing about his death upset me.

Posted by: Cass at March 30, 2014 09:17 AM

Great post, Cass. I had the privilege of meeting the man along with ADM Stockwell. He was absolutely awesome. You put it way better than could I. Thanks!!

Posted by: CAPT Mongo at March 30, 2014 09:30 AM

I just finally had the opportunity to read this, Cass. A tribute to a fine man, well written, and well deserved. Go Navy, sir!

Posted by: spd rdr at March 31, 2014 06:53 PM

Capt. Mongo - I can't claim to have known Admiral Denton (or even to have met him). I was just so inspired by reading his story years ago. I think of it sometimes when I'm feeling discouraged and it really helps to put things in the right perspective.

Thanks, mr rdr. The Navy has much to be proud of.

Posted by: Cass - Confirmation Bigot-in-Training at March 31, 2014 08:27 PM