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Kerth: The exhausting search for valor – earned or otherwise

It occurs to me that, although I have written a weekly column for this newspaper for seven years, I have never told you the story about how I won the Congressional Medal of Honor for valor on the battlefield. That’s because in 2005, Congress passed the Stolen Valor Act, which makes it a federal offense to lie about being awarded medals you’ve never earned. And since I never won a military medal of any kind, I can’t tell you that stunning story about how I won the Congressional Medal of Honor for valor on the battlefield.

Because now, besides being a lie, it would also be a federal crime.

Still, in my defense, it’s not entirely my fault I never won that medal. As I understand it, the medal is only given to those who exhibit exceptional service in America’s military. And since I was never in the military, I am ineligible to receive it.

So, you see, it’s not my fault that I never won the Medal of Honor. I blame the government. So, thanks to those ham-handed congressional guardians of truth, justice and the American way, I’ll have to earn your respect for my valor in other ways, perhaps by telling you tales of glory of the years that I was an astronaut.

But wait – NASA is a federal organization, isn’t it? Does the Stolen Valor Act extend to telling lies about flying steely-jawed into space on a federally-funded rocket, or is it only for medals won? Besides, don’t all astronauts earn a medal of some sort, even if it’s just for showing up to take all those tests they have to endure to prove that they have the right stuff?

No, lying about being an astronaut is probably off limits, too. Leave it to the government to kill any chance I might have to get the guy on the bar stool next to me to spring for a free round of beer to reward me for my stolen valor.

I suppose I could rub my balding head and mutter, “Damn helmet.” After all, that’s what my Dad did all through my childhood.

He had been a soldier during World War II – a real soldier, not an imaginary one. He had spent a few years sloshing through the island jungles of New Caledonia in the South Pacific, fighting the germs, fungi, and Japanese soldiers who also inhabited those islands. He served in the army for more than five years, and although he was never given the Congressional Medal of Honor, there is no question in my mind he deserved a free beer every day of his life to reward him for his valor.

He was still a young man when the war ended and he returned to the States – 27 years old or so – but his hair was thinning. He often rubbed his head and cursed the helmet that he and his fellow band of brothers were forced to wear. I have seen pictures of him as a young man before the war, and he sported a thick mane of glorious hair, as did my uncles. After the war, though, many of them were forced to adopt a comb-over style of hairdo to hide their shame.

Well, either that or they could rub their shining pate and mutter, “Damn helmet,” a gesture that turned an embarrassing chrome dome into a valorous medal of sorts.

It wasn’t until I hit my mid-20s and was starting to consider a comb-over of my own that I realized most of those men in helmets had simply hit the age when their genetic propensity toward baldness was kicking in anyway.

Damn helmet, indeed! Dad deserved plenty of medals for valor, but his shiny head probably wasn’t one of them.

Still, there was a time when I could sit on a bar stool, rub my balding head and mutter, “Damn helmet,” and get away with it. But then that doggone meddling Congress came along and changed all the rules. But hey, who ever said that my helmet was issued by the military?

Who can forget that iconic photo of New York Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle kneeling bald and bleeding after being hit by an army of Pittsburgh Steelers in 1964?

Well, I played a bit of high-school football in the 1960s, and so by the time I was in my mid-20s I took to rubbing my balding head and muttering, “Damn helmet,” whenever I needed a little jolt of valor. Never mind other quarterbacks like Dandy Don Meredith and Broadway Joe Namath sported enough hair to knit a sweater with the clippings after each haircut, there was always good old Y.A. Tittle there at my back to prove helmets can really take their toll.

Of course, things are different today. That “Damn helmet” excuse doesn’t work to explain my thinning hair any more – not with players like Troy Polamalu flaunting their curls cascading over their shoulder pads like uruk-hai warriors battling the armies of Middle Earth.

Anyway, it’s hard for glory-challenged saps like me to steal valor these days, you know? Congress has ruled military medals off-limits, and common sense has swept football helmets off the table, too. Still, nobody ever earned valor by quitting.

So if you ever walk into a pub and pull up a bar stool next to a short, balding columnist rubbing his shining scalp and muttering, “Damn deadlines,” buy the poor guy a beer, will ya?

• Tom “T. R.” Kerth is a Sun City resident and retired English teacher from Maine South High School, Park Ridge. He regularly writes a column for the Sun City Herald. He can be reached at trkerth@yahoo.com.

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