“There is no courage without fear.”
The 19th anniversary of 9/11, my father deploying again, the current conversations highlighting good versus evil in our society and the many doctors and nurses who are working tirelessly through COVID-19 and other surgeries like my most recent knee surgery have inspired me more than I could ever express. We like to talk about the Hero in each of us and how everyone can be Heroic, which is very true, but sometimes Superheroes deserve their own recognition. I recently sat down with LTC Nate Conkey, current Battalion Commander and Professor of Military Science for Auburn University’s War Eagle Battalion, to share some thoughts on what Heroism looks like at the highest level … a level that is sometimes overlooked while we try to individually better ourselves.
LTC Conkey commissioned into the Infantry upon graduation from the United States Military Academy at West Point twenty years ago and has since deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. His service has earned him decorations including the Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart Medal and Defense Meritorious Service Medal among other achievements. His character and testimony are amazingly inspirational, moving me to think deeper into who our Heroes are.
How do you define Heroism?
I think I define Heroism as doing something, some act, that you yourself wouldn’t imagine yourself doing, nor would most of your peers do in a similar circumstance. A true Hero is rare … it’s probably best to label the one who IS afraid yet still acts with bravery in an unexpected manner, usually in some form of selfless service.
What is a portrayal of Heroism you have experienced that has stuck in your mind?
On this eve of 9/11 I am struck by the numbers of Heroes who must have gone to bed on this night 19 years ago having no idea the position they’d be thrust into on the following morning. Maybe it was the random group of people on flight #93 who fought back onboard their United Airlines flight to protect a target they didn’t know existed. Maybe it was the men and women in uniform who helped evacuate the Pentagon after it was struck by Flight 77. And certainly it could be the any number of folks in the high rises and on the streets of NYC who saved countless thousands of additional lives from the World Trade Center collapses. All those Heroes are stuck in my mind.
CH (MAJ) Tim Shepherd, current Task Force Chaplain, Task Force Sinai and Multi National Force Observers Chaplain, Egypt, also shared some wisdom and inspiration from his experiences with Heroism over his military career. After earning his MDIV, ordainment and commission in 2008, his service domestic and abroad has awarded him decorations including the Bronze Star Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, the Army Achievement Medal, the Reserve Component’s Achievement Medal, the Meritorious Unit Award and the Combat Action Badge in addition to being a Distinguished Member of the 28th Infantry Regiment and recipient of the Order of Saint Maurice.
How has 9/11 shaped your outlook on Heroism?
I have always felt deeply that preserving and defending the freedom and liberty of the American way of life through military service is the highest calling. It is a personal honor and a heavy responsibility to wear our nation’s cloth. In one sense, 9/11 has had no impact on my outlook on Heroism. The warriors that defend our nation, those that stand and say, “Here am I, send me,” are worthy of our nation’s gratitude and respect. The response to 9/11, by a united nation, has personally connected me to those who understand that defending this nation may require them to pour out the last full measure of devotion. Understanding that that ideals of liberty and freedom are worth defending, even at the cost of my life, is Heroic. In another sense, 9/11 has shaped my outlook on Heroism because it has given me the honor to know, serve, and minster to true Heroes.
How do you honor the Heroes you have served with?
I wear a steel band engraved with names, I build an Ebenezer each Memorial Day and I tell their stories. I tell their stories to fellow combat veterans that served with them. I tell their stories to Soldiers who have not served in combat. I tell their stories to people who want to know what Heroism is.
Are there any Heroes you would like to recognize today?
LTC Conkey: Absolutely. I have served with many, both before and after their acts of Heroism. 1LT Dimitri DelCastillo, or Del, who I coached as a Rugby player at West Point. Del was in a strongpoint defense in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan and died protecting members of his platoon from an enemy that had them surrounded and outnumbered. Only his Soldiers truly know of and can speak to his bravery, but knowing Del I am sure he was doing anything he could to help his team.
I also had the pleasure of meeting SSG Sal Giunta, a Medal of Honor recipient from the 173rd ABN Brigade. SSG Giunta was wounded in an ambush, twice, before realizing one of the members of his squad was being carried away by Taliban fighters. He fought further fire and contact to make his way to his wounded friend, saved him, and fought back to the cover of his platoon. Amazing. And to this day he insists he just did what he knew others would do for him. Wow.
CH Shepherd: Always. I am personally connected to that Heroism through my service and ministry to the Black Lions of 1st Battalion 28th Infantry Regiment: SPC Cody Moosman (KIA 3 JULY 2012), 1LT Todd Lambka and PFC Johnathan Lopez (KIA 1 AUG 2012), SGT Matt Stiltz (KIA 12 November 2012), SSG Bo Hicks and SGT Joe Richardson 14 November 2012).
I am immeasurably blessed to have met and fostered relationships with so many men and women who sacrifice all they know and love in the spirit of Heroism, not for compensation or recognition, but for solely doing the right thing even while facing fear eye-to-eye. This is a time of somber remembrance, reflection and inspiration as we embrace and learn from the Heroes around us. This is a letter of love and gratitude to LTC Conkey, CH Shepherd and the thousands of other names we honor today.