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06-22-05, 11:54 AM
A Lesson for All of Us In Letters to POWs
By Matthew Dodd

"True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost."

After eight articles in my series on Navy Cross heroes of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, I discovered the above quote from the late Arthur Ashe, the professional tennis champion. I believe it very succinctly captures the essence of the heroism recognized by the presenting of the nation's second-highest decoration for valor.

Ashe's quote does not apply only to battlefield exploits. Ordinary people also do heroic acts, and as I have discovered with the Navy Cross heroes in my series, these civilian heroics too often go unnoticed in the news media's insatiable appetite for negative and sensationalized stories. Let me share with you the remarkable story of one woman who epitomized the spirit of Ashe's quote.

A while ago, I received an intriguing email from a young woman who was working at the Department of Defense ammunition plant in McAlester, Okla. Her email caught my eye and touched my heart when she told me, "As I deal with military personnel and their families every day, I see first-hand the sacrifices that they give for their country, often which go without gratitude or reward. She then proceeded to tell me about a very special woman's 30-plus year old personal scrapbook, and "how sacred this scrapbook is to all who know its story. It is truly a national treasure."

In 1972, two McAlester Cub Scout Den leaders, Darlene and Richard Chase, decided they wanted their scouts to do something special for their city's Armed Forces Day parade. According to an article in The McAlester News-Capital on Nov. 28, 2004:

"Using the dimes they'd saved from their weekly dues, the Cub Scouts of Pack 63 constructed a float that asked all who viewed it to "Pray For Our POWs." When parade day came, Pack members rode with bowed heads as they held up an American flag along the entire [three-mile] parade route. The Cubs won first prize a whopping $75 for their entry."

I believe most people probably would have felt satisfied with their patriotic efforts to support American POWs and being awarded the top prize and stopped. But the scouts of Pack 63 had only just begun. They took their hard-earned prize money, paid to make copies of parade pictures, bought postage and sent hand-written letters to 55 former POWs to let them know that they deeply appreciated the veterans' service and sacrifices. The letters did not ask for anything from the POWs, but they did tell the POWs about the award-winning float, and that the scouts were happy and thankful for the POWs' safe return home.

To get the former POWs' addresses, Darlene first requested them from President Nixon. Her request was officially denied in a March 16, 1973 letter from the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense, which cited military regulations against giving out names and addresses of servicemen to people they do not know in order to "protect individual servicemen from commercial exploitation and to respect their right to privacy." Undeterred, in a church newsletter she found the address for parents of a former POW, and she wrote to them. The parents in turn sent her several addresses of other former POWs, which eventually led to a total of 55 addresses for the Pack's 55 letters.

From those 55 letters, the scouts received responses from 29 former POWs. Darlene and her scouts were surprised and delighted when the responses started arriving, probably as surprised and delighted as the former POWs were to receive the Pack's letter. The former POWs' responses speak volumes about how grateful and appreciative our troops are when people express support for their efforts and sacrifices, especially during times of war:

"Please tell each of the boys how grateful we are for their prayers. God heard those prayers. He gave us strength to survive and brought us safely back home." --Cmdr. Eugene B. McDonald USN.

"Thank you for the picture of the beautiful float. It means a great deal to me to know that young men are working for their country and showing their love for it and the people who live in America." -- Maj. Ray J. Jenson, USAF.

"The thoughts of our children ... and their friends gave us strength and courage to resist and endure. We felt we just couldn't let our folks down." --Major Orson G. Swindle III, USMC

"t was your prayers and thoughts which greatly assisted me during the seven years I was "wearing your bracelet" as it were. Believe me; I felt and drew strength from them; everyone, everyday .... In Hanoi, as we sustained one another with physical and moral support, brevity was usually required in our personal communications. In the "POW shorthand" which evolved, the common but always sincere sign-off was GBU (God bless you) and GBA (God bless America). But now, for you, a special sign-off: GBU/A for, to me, You are America." -- Cmdr. Gerald L. Coffee, USN.

When I first started doing research for this article, I was completely focused on the scouts and the POWs. As my research progressed, I began to slowly divide my focus and deepen my appreciation for the wonderful lady behind the scenes who was largely responsible for what I have already covered.

Darlene's partner in inspiring the scouts' initial parade float efforts was her then-husband, Richard Chase. He was a Marine in Vietnam where he was wounded in action and received the Bronze Star and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. He took a medical retirement in 1971 as a Gunnery Sergeant after 12.5 years of service. For going when called, risking it all in harm's way, and for being recognized for his actions, I salute GySgt Richard Chase with a hearty "Semper Fidelis, Devildog!"

Darlene and Richard are now long divorced, yet remain good friends, and share holidays together with their children and grandchildren. Now in her 60s, she works at the McAlester Salvation Army Store. For over 20 years she has written Christian poetry, is very active in several church groups, and has two locally published small books of poetry. I have read one of her Christmas poem cards, "Christmas in My Heart," many times and can personally attest to her faith and talents. Over the years, Darlene has sent many military "care packages" and has written and shared a special poem during each significant military event with many different soldiers. A very close friend of hers says that she does not have much, but she gives all she has to others, mostly her time and energy.

The many lessons the former POWs' letters and the actions of Darlene and her scouts can teach all of us should not be lost or ignored, but embraced and practiced each and every day: service, sacrifice, gratitude, humility, determination, love of country, the power of belief in a Higher Power, and the difference between giving aid and comfort to our troops, vice the enemies of our troops, in time of war.

Tragically, these lessons too often go unnoticed by today's news media and unappreciated by too many of our public personalities, to the extent that too many people consider the lessons irrelevant and unimportant. As good as our great country is, just imagine how much better we would be if more people shared Darlene Chase's heroic urge to serve others at whatever cost.