What It Means To Be An American
I was honored to attend the MVAT Patriotic golf outing held in LA on August 21, 2017 where I heard an amazing hero deliver an incredible speech. To all who will be celebrating Veterans Day – THIS IS FOR YOU – for our veterans, and their families. You truly understand what it is to be an AMERICAN.
Chrisanne Gordon, MD
Founder, Resurrecting Lives Foundation
What It Means To Be An American
Speech by Medal of Honor Recipient Maj. Gen. Patrick H. Brady, USA (ret.)at the MVAT Golf Classic Awards Dinner, August 21, 2017
As to the subject, some time ago I was asked to speak on what it means to be an American.
This topic was central to President Reagan’s farewell address; he in fact used those very words –
what it means to be an American – and pleaded with all of us to instill the answer in our children. I am going to give you a mini version of that speech, which may be timely based on what is going on in America today.
What does it mean to be an American? That begs the question – is America exceptional?
President Obama was asked that question and famously said he believes in American
exceptionalism just as he suspects Brits believe in British exceptionalism and Greeks believe in
Exceptionalism, then, is subjective. My home country is no better than any other; exceptionalism
is based on sentiment and can’t be objectively measured. Rome was exceptional to the Romans
and Nazi Germany was exceptional to the Germans.
It seems more and more Americans today agree with Mr. Obama. We are in an age where many
want to globalize America, kind of exceptionalize us down – to fundamentally transform us.
Some are even offended by those who profess American exceptionalism. For these people,
patriotism is jingoism, xenophobia, or chauvinism.
As one who has seen a great deal of the world, I disagree with these people. The Encyclopedia of
American Foreign Policy defines American exceptionalism as: “a term used to describe the
belief that the United States is an extraordinary nation with a special role to play in human
history; a nation that is not only unique but superior.”
I do believe we have met that definition. We are exceptional. Now, that doesn’t mean we are
superior morally but we have a superior system and I believe we are hardwired differently than
I believe we have played a special role in history, that we are unique and superior as a nation and that we are a gift to the world – and that is not just a sentiment, I believe it is supportable by facts.
In fact, I believe that we are beyond exceptional; we, our system, are indeed the last best hope of mankind. Does anyone believe the Brits or the Greeks or any other nation is the last best hope of mankind?
I have limited my findings to three unique American characteristics bonded together by another
America is exceptional because we are a uniquely courageous people, a uniquely compassionate
people and a uniquely competitive people. And we have been a good people. C cubed G.
Alexis de Tocqueville in the 19th century was the first to call America exceptional – he also said
America is great because America is good. Goodness is the indispensable element of our
exceptionalism and ties the other three together.
An Exceptionally Courageous People
Courage of course is the one virtue that we are told is the king of all others, for it secures them. No other virtue, not freedom, not justice not anything, not anyone is safe, is secure without this thing we call courage.
That statement may sound obvious, even a bit trite, but I believe Americans more so than most
understand the need for – and the nature of – courage. We revere it.
We agree with William James on courage. He wrote: “Evident though the shortcomings of a man
may be, if he is ready to give up his life for a cause, we forgive him everything. However inferior he may be to ourselves in other respects, if we cling to life while he throws it away like a flower we bow to his superiority.”
We see that in the way we treat our military, our nobility. We hear that there is no greater love
than laying down ones life for a neighbor. True, but the next greatest love is a willingness to put oneself in a position where that may be a possibility, the daily fare of our troops.
Although we firmly believe in equality, we know we are not all born equals. In terms of ability
and opportunity we are just not all born equals. In fact there is only one way in which we are all
born equals. Only in matters of courage are we all equals.
Each of us can have all the courage we want. You cannot use it up.
God has made this incredible gift infinitely available to all of us. In fact it is the great equalizer in life; it certainly produces great people from those among us who were not born with great ability or given great opportunity.
Americans understand the blessings of courage; they know that they can go as far in life as their
courage will take them and that God will give them all the courage they need.
Once we are locked on to courage as the key to success in life, we understand that mediocrity
and failure are the result of choice, not chance. Courage belies victimhood.
The American Constitution, which more so than any other governing document, unleashes the
fruits of courage in what is truly free in America – enterprise, the courage to take risks, based onindividual initiative unfettered by outside interference.
Courage then is one source of our prosperity, undeniably unsurpassed in human history.
American courage is also the source of most of the freedom in the world, the courage of our
leaders, our people and most of all, our military.
I am often asked what the source of courage is.
I believe that the key to courage is another American characteristic, faith – and the two are oftenconfused. I have never known any one with enduring repetitive courage who was not also a
person of faith.
Fear, of course is the antithesis of courage. Fear is an emotion; courage is a decision.
It is well known that we are a nation of faith and that explains the great courage of our people –
it also explains their goodness.
G.K. Chesterton said: “we are a country with the soul of a church.”
It was the confluence of our faith and a desire for freedom that brought us the Declaration and
the Constitution. Our founders taught that there is no liberty without morality; that there are no
little people, each person’s dignity was the equal of the booted and spurred who had saddled
much of the world. That God was the source of our rights, not the robed and perfumed elite who
declared and denied rights on a whim.
Belief in a God and religious principles was essential to our birth. Let’s hear from the
Founders. James Madison, the father of our Constitution, said, “We have staked the whole
future of American civilization … upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves
according to the 10 commandments.” John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a
moral and religious people.” George Washington said that national morality couldn’t prevail “in
exclusion of religious principle.”
We could go on and on about our faith based heritage and how vital it is to who we are a people
focused on the dignity and worth of the individual as De Tocqueville said: “Americans have a
lively faith in the perfectibility of man.” He found that religion and freedom were intimately
united in America. Bottom line: no freedom without a God.
In peace and in war, America is an exceptionally courageous country because we are an
exceptionally religious country, a people of faith.
An Exceptionally Compassionate People
What are the fruits of courage, what do we find in courageous people? Their capacity for
sacrifice stands out, which bring us to compassion – the fruit of sacrifice. Compassion is not an
amorphous sentiment it is a form of sacrifice, which demands both love and action.
Much of the sacrifice of the American people is special. There is no bottom line, no materiel
gain, no quid pro quo, nothing really in it for them. All it does is increase their capacity for more – sacrifice – and it also increases their capacity for fulfillment, for responsibility indeed for happiness itself.
The greater your capacity for sacrifice, the greater will be your capacity for responsibility and
leadership – and I believe – the happier you will be. This kind of sacrifice is most manifest in
parents, teachers, coaches our military, and our charity to the world.
Even in combat America is compassionate. That was no more evident than in Vietnam. It may be
the only war we ever fought, or perhaps that was ever fought, in which the American soldier
added to their heroism with humanitarianism unmatched in the annals of warfare. And the
humanitarianism took place during the heat of the battle.
The GI fixed as he fought, he cured and educated and built in the middle of the battle, schools,
orphanages, hospitals, roads, and he vaccinated thousand and cured previously disastrous
disease. Humanitarianism was our great victory in Vietnam. I wrote a brilliant book on this.
And there is a lot of truth in the saying that the road to prosperity is through losing a war with
America. Our compassion for Germany and Japan, billions in dollars and deeds, to a ruthless
barbaric enemy, led them to incredible prosperity and peace. Peace of course is the ultimate
victory of all warriors.
Americans give billions annually to charities, not only at home, but also across the world. No
individuals give more than the Americans. We also adopt more children than the rest of the
world combined. Who is at the forefront of every natural disaster on this planet? Who gives more
for the medical needs and poverty of people around the globe?
If compassion can be measured in charity, we are the most compassionate people in the world.
America the beautiful sings of a people who more than self their country love and mercy more
than life. That says a lot about patriotism and compassion
A word of caution on compassion. Actually, phony compassion. I believe there is great danger in
the promotion of unwarranted self-esteem, the shielding of children from the fruits of failure.
Failure is healthy; it is a necessary stepping-stone to success. When we subsidize failure and
focus on security rather than opportunity, when we are more concerned that our programs are
compassionate than that they are fair and equal, we guarantee failure.
A false compassion may also be a shield for the roots of socialism.
A Competitive People
This brings me to the final component of American exceptionalism – our competitiveness. We
are a people who love to compete, who believe we should be free to pursue happiness but we
also find happiness in the pursuit – in competing for happiness however we define it.
Look at our reaction to Sputnik. Once we began to compete in space we buried the competition.
The same is true in science, technology, agriculture even athletics.
More so than any other nation, we have been a meritocracy and that fosters competition. Success
in America has been a function of ability and hard work more so than any other factor. We are all
able to compete as equals in the market place of ideas and industry.
Despite the demonization of the rich by some, my experience with the wealthy in America is that
they are smarter than I am, work harder than I do, are more competitive than I am, more willing
to take a risk and only sometimes are they luckier than I am.
And most of the wealthy I know are very generous – and for good reason, many of them know
what it means to be poor.
Other people may be our equal in efficiencies, but not in a capacity for hard work – the
American worker does not take siestas – that is until he gets to be my age.
I am told we are not more efficient for example than the Germans, but we work longer hours and
take less time off – and we work more years thus American does not lose the efficiencies of its
work force as soon as does other countries.
Of course, the issue is more complex and some are wanting through no lack of effort on their
part. But I believe most failures result from a lack of courage, an unwillingness to compete. And
there are some who feel they deserve more of the American dream than they are willing to
compete for. Cowards do not want to compete, they want some one else to run the race, but they
do want to share the trophy.
They want equal outcome for unequal input. Many of these people want a hand out rather than a
hand up. And a great danger to America is that politicians have learned that they can bribe these
people for their vote.
Tragically, government bribing leads to addiction. It forms a relationship between our people and
our government that is similar to that between a drug dealer and an addict. A controlling
government is like a dope peddler; they seek to grow the addiction of the people, to build their
dependence, which grows the power, the ultimate aphrodisiac of evil, excessive power of the
And some of the bribing takes the form of quotas, by which one person benefits because of race
gender etc. – not just ability or hard work; over another, better qualified, person because of their race gender etc.
This is not only unfair it is insane. Government bribery, quotas and other non-merit based
programs lead to socialism, or worse, and will destroy our competitiveness and eventually
Now, having said that I do favor quotas in select places, for instance there should be a limited
quota of lawyers in government and an increased quota of conservatives in the media. But that’s
just me for all you lawyers and liberals.
I was in DC recently. Those guys hold their own hands in lovers lane, and if you see them lost in
thought it’s because thought is unfamiliar territory.
I think sports are a great model of the principles of exceptionalism in America. All sports take
some form of courage, mental, spiritual, and physical, many take all three. It takes hard work and
that requires courage and sacrifice. It takes competitiveness and, although one might not think of
ultimate fighters as a compassionate lot, sports in general give billions to charity. Rewards in
sports are based mostly on results.
No quotas here for the most part and for the most part sports are an indispensable element, I
think, of children’s development.
And of all the athletes I believe golfers best represent what I am talking about. For example, on
occasion, San Antonio general officers are privileged to caddy for wounded warriors at a local
golf course. David Feherty comes by with some legendary pros to put on a clinic and entertain
the troops with his delightful Irish sense of humor. The troops love these PGA tour professionals
and I am amazed at their patriotism and patience with our disabled troops.
A warrior expressed admiration for Jim Thorpe’s $900 driver. Jim gave it to him on the spot.
That was Jim’s hard earned money he was giving away – not someone else’s. Unfortunately, Jim
didn’t give enough money to the IRS and did some time for it.
I watched with some emotion as Tom Watson repeatedly got down on his knees teeing the ball
for legless troops, then lined them up and walked them through the swing. He went into detail on
how to hit the ball if you are missing a right leg versus hitting the ball if you are missing a left leg. He obviously had studied the difference.
There was no media, only his wife who proudly took photos of Tom and the troops for the family
As I watched these elite golfers work with our wounded warriors, it occurred to me how much
they represent what makes America so exceptional – a competitive, courageous, compassionate
Sports compensation, especially golf, is mostly based on results. You can’t talk the ball into the
hole or across the goal line. You don’t make the team because of your race, gender, family name
or fortune. Many athletes come from poverty.
Perhaps the greatest lessons of sports for the troops are the blessings of failure. After a round
golfers are open about their failures – and work on them. The blessings of failure are important as the wounded warriors have to learn all over basic human functions, and they fail again and
again. These kids will not quit.
One of the first lessons I learned in the Army was the principle of KISS.
In the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation’s Character Development Program over the last
10 years working with teachers educators and students, one thing stood out – the primary goal of
education in a democracy, the “k-i-s-s” thing – is patriotism.
Just as there is no freedom without God, there can be no democracy without patriotism.
We cannot survive unless we continue to grow patriots, young people who believe in our
exceptionalism, who prove their love for America by supporting and defending her.
I use the story of Webster Anderson to explain patriotism to our youth. Early one morning in
Vietnam, communist forces attacked his unit. In the initial attack they pretty much took off both
legs. Yet he continued to fight. Later, he caught a grenade and it blew off an arm as he tried to
throw it clear of his men. Still he fought on. I flew in and picked up what was left of Webster
after he had inspired him men to defeat the communist. Miraculously, the medics saved his life,
but his efforts to save his men cost him both legs and an arm, and earned him the Medal of
Webster and I became close and some years later. We were speaking at a school in Oklahoma.
One of the youngsters asked Webster if he would do what he did again, knowing what it would
cost him. Webster’s answer moves me to this day. He said, kid, I only have one arm left, but my
country can have it any time they want.
Patriotism is not the last refuge of a scoundrel it is the last hope of a free people. We must grow patriots. The highest form of patriotism is service to our youth, to their proper education and the fostering of their patriotism – instilling in them that they are part of an exceptional nation and it is their duty to keep it that way.
Our life has meaning only if lived to benefit the next generation.
In conclusion, not only are we exceptional, I believe the key to a successful future is a strong
belief in and teaching of our exceptionalism.
And so, in answer to the question, what does it mean to be an American, it means to be part of an
exceptional people, a people who have been a blessing to the world and will continue to be so as
long as we remain a good people, a people of courage, of compassion with a government
dedicated to the immutable truths of the Constitution of our Founders, a government that allows
free and unfettered competition in a market governed by merit, individual initiative and hard
Transformation is not the answer to our problems; restoration is the answer, restoration to the
principles of our exceptionalism.
If we fail it will be because we commit suicide, we lose our courage and become cowards, we
lose our compassion and become greedy and self-centered, and we lose our competitiveness and
become socialists. But we will lose all these only if we lose our goodness and abandon the God
who has favored our undertaking as we acknowledge on our great seal and every dollar bill.
Resurrect a Hero – Strengthen a Nation
Let 2017 be the year that we make health care accessible for our Veterans – even those with complex neurological issues secondary to TBI/PTSD and enable them to have a productive, happy, successful career outside the military, as a valued member of the civilian world. Please feel free to send us your comments, suggestions, and stories to:
We are here. We are listening. We are advocating for you – and our nation.
Chrisanne Gordon, MD
Founder and Chairwoman
Resurrecting Lives Foundation is proud to be a GuideStar Exchange Member