Archive for May, 2014

Not Forgotten

He had survived a 500-mile walk over mountains and through stifling heat, but the dehydration and malaria were too much, and he died just a couple of days into his stay at a Chinese POW camp. His captors had allowed each of the prisoners just one cup of water each day on their nearly two-month walk. They ate grass, leaves, insects, anything they could find. Those who tried to stop for a drink of water from the streams were shot. Of the nearly 500 who started this march, only about 200 survived.

Obie Wickersham and Fred Liddell buried their friend in a shallow grave somewhere in the Korean mountains that day, thousands of miles from his Custer County, Nebraska home. Fred took one of his friend’s dog tags and secretly tucked it into his pocket. The other he put in his friend’s mouth. Obie and Fred tried to say a few words to honor their fallen friend, who had won a Silver Star and been wounded twice in World War II and then re-enlisted for the Korean War, but their captors cut them short. Obie and Fred promised each other that they would someday, somehow, give their friend a proper burial.

Sgt. Patrick Arthur, “Pops” to his fellow soldiers, because at age 36, he was nearly 15 years older than most infantrymen, was one of 37,000 Americans who died in the Korean War. 8100 are still missing, and 1.8 million served in America’s “Forgotten War.”

When the war ended, Sgt. Patrick Arthur was considered missing in action. Though the Department of Defense had credible evidence in the form of testimony from surviving POWs that Pat was dead, they couldn’t document his death or recover his remains. That took another 40 years.

In the early 1990s, Sgt. Patrick Arthur finally made it home. According to the Defense Prisoners of War/Missing Personnel Office, a division within the US Department of Defense, Sgt. Arthur came home with about 400 of his fellow soldiers in 208 boxes that the North Koreans sent back between 1990 and 1994. Unfortunately, because of substandard recovery methods and record-keeping, forensic scientists in the Department of Defense struggled to identify many of the remains.

Battlefields are inherently chaotic, and in the case of North Korea, political hostilities severely limit access. In situations like Korea and Vietnam, where POW camps were run with disregard for the Geneva Convention, the American military often didn’t even know who was being held in the camp or even where the camp was. In these cases, forward thinking by fellow captive soldiers aided in the recovery of remains.

Such was the case with Pat Arthur, who was not only a great, great soldier, he was my great-great uncle. The resourcefulness of Fred Liddell as he stood starving and stoic over his friend’s shallow grave in the North Korean mountains was key to identifying Uncle Pat’s remains. In one of those 208 boxes was Pat’s dogtag, the one that Fred put in his mouth before covering him with dirt. Further probing found a dental implant with Pat’s name on it and skeletal remains that matched Pat’s age and stature at his death.

With Pat finally on American soil, officials arranged for an Arlington Cemetery burial in 2009, almost 58 years after he died. My mom’s uncle, aunt, their family and one of my mom’s sisters were also there to pay final respects. No one, though, found more closure that day than did Fred Liddell and Obie Wickersham. In their 80s, but never forgetting their vow to each other and Uncle Pat, they were there and finally able to give their friend a proper burial. They might have been forgotten soldiers in a forgotten war, but they never forgot each other.

More information, including pictures, on Pat and his recovery is available at

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Learning About Life in a Soccer Game?

If we pay attention, we are occasionally rewarded with unexpected opportunities to observe the brilliance of life when triumph and defeat collide. Such was the case, earlier in the week, when I watched the championship game of the Nebraska Girls State Soccer Tournament, pitting Elkhorn South against Gretna.

I hadn’t planned on watching the game – I’m not sure that I’ve ever watched an entire soccer game, but I was interested in this one, because my children attend Gretna schools, and my wife and I have known a handful of the Gretna players since they were very young. I didn’t even realize that the game was televised, until I sat down and read the newspaper. When I tuned in, Elkhorn South had just scored the game’s only goal to take the lead 1-0, and only five minutes remained.

Things didn’t look good for Gretna. They had already been beaten by Elkhorn South twice this year – not only beaten, but shut out. In fact, over the past two seasons, Elkhorn South had shut out Gretna five times. Shut-outs are a bit of a thing for Elkhorn South, which was going for its 18th shut-out of the season and 19th straight win. Gretna had only five minutes remaining to do what very few had this year – score a goal on this incredible defense.

As time ticked away, it looked like Elkhorn South would capture the state title that had evaded them the year before. In that championship game, they had given up the lead with 35 seconds remaining, and would go on to lose the game in a shoot-out.

Forty-four seconds remained this time when defender Sarah Zeleny took a shot from 40 yards away. The senior had never scored a goal in her high school career, and one of the state’s best defenses was between her and the goal. None of that mattered, as she placed the shot perfectly just above the goalie’s reach to force overtime.

Even Zeleny was surprised. “Usually when I shoot it, it doesn’t go anywhere near the goal,” she said in a newspaper interview.

The Elkhorn South team never recovered. Just like last year, they gave up a late lead and lost in extra minutes. While they were stunned in disbelief, Gretna was ecstatic. Meanwhile, from my recliner, I was thankful for the lessons in fairness, faith, opportunity and momentum that the game provided.

Fairness: Elkhorn South played a near-perfect game and had been dominant all season. After their heartbreak in last year’s final, they were due some good fortune. Instead, luck went the other way, and their dominant effort ended in frustration. Sometimes, we can do everything right, and still not succeed. Life isn’t always fair.

Faith: Facing daunting odds, the Gretna team didn’t give up. It would have been easy to accept their fate as another shut-out victim, but they didn’t, and though she had never scored a goal, Zeleny seized the opportunity to help her team. When the odds are against us, faith gives us a chance.

Opportunity: In a normal situation, Zeleny would have never tried such a long shot with such a low probability of success; she would have tried to move the ball to a teammate. However, in this case, because precious little time was left, doing what she normally did would have likely resulted in defeat. Though she hadn’t made a goal in her entire career, she had practiced for that moment for years, and when it came, she didn’t hesitate. Sure, luck was involved, but luck happens when preparation meets opportunity.

Momentum: Since I know very little about soccer, I rely on others, and the consensus seems to be that Elkhorn South played better than Gretna, until Zeleny’s goal. Shortly after that goal, Gretna scored the game-winning goal and then held on to win 2-1. I don’t know if the Elkhorn South team ever gave up two goals so quickly. Momentum can be energizing when it’s with us, and crushing, when it isn’t. When momentum favors us, we need to do everything we can to capitalize.

I watched the Nebraska Boys State Soccer Tournament Final the next day, and whatever luck and momentum Gretna had came to an end early, as the boys lost 1-0. In fact, they lost to a team coached by one of my former students at the school where I once taught and coached myself. Though, I’m still not a soccer fan, both games were gifts I didn’t expect to receive this week.

Congratulations Champions: Gretna Lady Dragons and Columbus Scotus Shamrocks (especially Coach Brezenski)

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Would You Work with Freddy Krueger?

Looking back at it, I’m fortunate that the receptionist paged her boss and not security or the police when I showed up in the lobby. I saw the fear and uncertainty in her eyes, and I couldn’t really blame her. I looked like I just tumbled out of a slasher movie.

Two hours earlier, in my haste to get on the road, I tripped over a curb and landed on my left shoulder and cheek (the cheek on my face) in my office parking lot. The pavement was wet with melting snow, dirt and the snow-melt compound that the maintenance guy had put down. When I landed, I ground all of that into my face, hands, shirt and pants. For good measure, in stunned unawareness, I wiped my freshly bloodied knuckles on my pants.

Seconds earlier, I had looked fairly good in my new black shirt and freshly pressed khaki pants. I was on my way to win business from people I had never met in person, and I was full of confidence. I didn’t look so good now, I thought to myself, as I looked in the rear-view mirror and wiped blood and dirt from my face with an old rag I found under the seat. I considered postponing, but it would have been weeks before I would be able to get all of these guys in one room again. My competitors would loom during those days.

Because I had just enough time to make the drive, I wasn’t even able to stop by a bathroom to perform triage. I was going to have to go in raw and mangled, hoping to use confidence to overcome the obstacles my appearance presented.

Many of life’s pivotal points come in moments like these, when our confidence is shaken at precisely the moment we need it the most. How we respond often determines our life direction, at least for a while.

Doubt and feelings of inferiority often flash into our conscious when we have an unexpected opportunity to assert ourselves. Maybe a boss asks for our opinion in a meeting. Maybe we have an unexpected opportunity to volunteer for an important task or meet an important person. Rather than living with regrets, we should seize these unexpected opportunities for exactly what they are – opportunities.

On my very first day of student teaching, in my very first hour, I learned that my cooperating teacher had called in sick and the substitute teacher had absolutely no idea how to teach the material. Instead of a day spent observing and getting comfortable with my surroundings, like I expected, I was thrust in front of a classroom of high school students for the first time since I was a high school student myself, three years earlier. I was nervous but it went well, and I developed courage under fire.

I was fortunate that my life had prepared me for situations like this. For about 35 years now, I’ve dragged around a mostly non-functional leg, so I’m accustomed to people struggling to suppress inadvertent stares when I walk into a room of strangers.

When I was younger, this bothered me tremendously, and I did everything I could to avoid walking in front of strangers. Even in college, I showed up early for classes and snuck away after the room cleared, in an attempt to make my first impression from a sitting position. I wanted people to know and like me, before letting them in on my handicap. I didn’t trust others not to judge me, and I hadn’t developed self-worth.

Now, as a motivational speaker, I sometimes walk across an auditorium stage in front of hundreds. I’m able to do this, because I no longer worry about what conclusions people make when they see me for the first time. I know that the people who matter could care less about how I move from one point to another. In fact, I know that if I don’t let it bother me, they won’t let it bother them.

Back in my truck after my client meeting, I looked at myself in the rearview mirror and smiled. My cheek was swollen now, and a rivulet of dried blood ran from the corner of my eye, but I killed it. My heightened confidence helped me compensate for my Freddy Kruger appearance. I had not only won the account, it’s been our biggest piece of business year to date.

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