You just do what you have to do
Nov. 9, 2002 - Houston Chronicle

He lies in the hospital bed with more tubes seemingly pushed into him each day. A ventilator keeps him alive. Occasionally, he recognizes people. I am alive because of him. You may be, too, but I have a more direct link. William Harasim is my father.

Yes, many of you may be alive because of him, and because of St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital volunteer Andy Anderson, and because of every other World War II veteran. They won the war the United States couldn't afford to lose. The enemy, historians remind us, was close to perfecting atomic bombs that could have meant death for millions of Americans. Would countless others have perished in concentration camps or ovens? What might have been boggles the mind.

The more I talk with friends, the more I realize I am not the only one who has found himself thinking this way. With the World War II generation dying out, it is only natural for their sons and daughters to try to place their accomplishments in context.

Study the World War II generation at Veterans Day and you quickly realize that in today's America, it is the benchmark for military service. Regardless of how dutifully, honorably and heroically other Americans have performed in military conflicts since -- as many now employed at St. Luke's have -- the service performed never seems, in the public's estimation, to live up to World War II standards. Even those who have served often feel that way. That is not right, my father argued while he could still talk.

"You just do what you have to do in the military," he said. "We had to win it all in World War II. You didn't have to win in Vietnam because no one knew for sure why we were there anyway. In the end, you also can't do any more than what our politicians allow you to do. Soldiers just try to clean up the troubles politicians start. Most of the time politicians from other countries start the trouble. But not all the time. What too many people do is look back at things through rose-colored glasses and forget all the pain. How good do you think mothers and fathers felt when they lost sons in World War II? How good do you think a wife felt when she lost her husband? I'm glad we won, but there was nothing good about World War II."

A realist, my father, a former member of the Army Air Corps.

I served as a military journalist in the Vietnam War, a conflict my father pleaded with me not to take part in. David Taylor, who works for St. Luke's in Facilities, served in 'Nam, too. So did Ralph Hendricks, one of our security officers and a Houston Police Department lieutenant. Each of us drew enemy fire. Not the kind of fire experienced by a man who became my friend, Roy Benavidez. A Special Forces sergeant who died four years ago, he suffered 57 wounds while rescuing some of his comrades. A doctor learned Sgt. Benavidez was alive when he spit in his face as he tried to zip him up in a body bag. By the way, Sgt. Benavidez told President Reagan, who awarded him the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery, that he just did what he had to do.

If you assume that that kind of thinking is outdated, a kind of false warrior modesty, then you haven't talked with Mike Reno, a St. Luke's assistant vice president for Facilities and Support Services and a former Special Forces sergeant. In Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993, he took part in the longest sustained firefight involving American troops since the Vietnam War. Mark Bowden's riveting account of that combat, called Blackhawk Down, was later turned into an Academy Award-winning movie of the same name. Reno, who manned a machine gun for hours to help rescue Americans trapped by the withering fire of warlords, said he, too, was "just doing what had to be done. I'm not being modest. I did nothing more than hundreds of thousands of other Americans have done."

Soldiers, Reno says, sounding much like my 88-year-old father in our last conversation, "don't fight for their country, their flag, their families. Soldiers fight for one another, fight because the lives of the men who have chosen to stand next to them depend on one another."

"You just do what you have to do," my father told me, "and pray that it's enough."

Harasim is manager of media relations and publications for the St. Luke's Episcopal Health System and an adjunct professor of communications at Texas Southern University.