From Quinnipiac University June 7th:
I honestly cannot believe my good fortune today. I cannot believe my name will be added to the jaw-dropping roster of previous Friendly Award recipients, not to mention being among this room full of champions, mentors and friends.
I am honored, humbled and thrilled that so many of you took the time to come. But I am not surprised. This group of friends and bosses and mentors from ABC have supported my career, my stories, my passions all along the way.
And people like producer Ely Brown who has been at my side in so many of these stories, thank you…then again, this place is pretty nice compared to most of the places we have been.
I thank Quinnipiac University which has had astonishing growth, now ranking among the best in the nation, President John Leahy can take much of the credit, and now with Dean Lee Kamlet on board, the university is growing further in all the best ways possible.
And who does not love an institution and an award ceremony that has a cocktail hour that begins at 11 am.
So I thank John Leahy, Lee Kamlet and especially Ruth Friendly for this honor. I met Fred exactly once, when he came through the ABC affiliate in Boston, WCVB. I had worked there several years, and was thrilled to meet the legend and likely behaved quite ridiculously when I introduced myself.
I am sure that if Fred were alive today and you asked him about the day he met that young Boston journalist he would have no memory of it. But I have not forgotten. And when I first got the call about this award I thought of that day.
Fred Friendly inspired a generation of journalists, and Ruth Friendly carries on that work. As you know, this award honors those who have shown “courage and forthrightness” in preserving our basic constitutional rights. Ruth’s own courage and commitment are certainly award-worthy.
I still struggle when people ask me about or talk about what they perceive as my own courage. Have I been forthright? Yes. Courageous? I simply cannot say that.
The courageous ones are the people I have covered during my career. The families overseas who struggle through famine, disaster, loss and war. The targets of hatred, the victims of unimaginable cruelty, and yes, for more than a decade, the U.S. military at war and the families they have left behind.
I have met remarkable people over the years, some of whom I am decidedly not objective about. They do not call themselves courageous so how can I possible say that about myself. They give us hope.
One of my favorite moments involving a quiet hero was not on the battlefields of Iraq or Afghanistan, but on the beaches of Normandy in late 2010.
I was on what is called an Army Staff ride, which is a battlefield tour with historians leading the way. The group I was with was put together by General Carter Ham, who I had known from the early very bad days in Iraq. He would become the first senior officer to publicly acknowledge his own post traumatic stress. On that day in Normandy there were about a dozen soldiers and officers tagging along. They were all in civilian clothes as we made our way to the cemetery at Normandy in a steady rain. I stayed close to one young soldier. I knew why he was there and what it meant to him. He was quietly weeping as he stood before the rows and rows of white crosses. When sunset approached General Ham asked the young soldier to help him lower the massive flag that flies over those crosses. While Ham and the young soldier had handled many flags in their lives, the officials at the cemetery came over to explain the particular protocol at Normandy.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a very elderly man. I now know he was a former Marine, close to 80 years old, stooped yet proud. He was wearing a cap that said “Korean War Veteran.” Despite his age, he apparently had no problem with his hearing. He had overheard the instructions being given to General Ham and the young soldier, who looked more like a college kid in his khaki pants and plaid shirt.
The elderly vet walked boldly up and pointed a finger in indignation at the young man and said, “Don’t you know how to fold a flag, young man!” General Ham and the young soldier froze for a moment. And then General Ham said gently to the old veteran, “Sir, I am General Carter Ham, and this young man is Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, whom the President has nominated as the first living medal of honor recipient since the Vietnam War.”
The elderly vet let out an audible “Whoa,” then stood as straight as he could, faced Giunta and raised his hand in a salute. Giunta returned the salute and said softly, “It is you we should be thanking for your service.”
Sal Giunta does not think he is courageous, or a hero. He does not think he did anything that others wouldn’t do in the same situation…facing down the Taliban in an effort to rescue his wounded friend who the Taliban were trying to carry away. Guinta managed to pull his fellow soldier to safety, but the friend later died from his wounds.
I haven’t found a courageous soldier, Marine, sailor or airmen who thinks they have done anything that others wouldn’t do. Male or female.
But we are a country tired of war after becoming far too accustomed to it. We have divided ourselves into two segments of society. Those who have fought, and those who have not. Yes, people say they support the troops, and they hang yellow ribbons and stand at baseball games to honor them. But it does not go much beyond that.
My own son is twenty. For half his life, for half the lives of everyone his age, we have been at war. And yet, the huge majority of young people , the huge majority of all the people in this country, have not been affected at all by these conflicts.
I have close friends whose daughter graduated from Charlie Gibson’s beloved Princeton University in 2007. She entered college in 2003, the same year the Iraq war began, and yet my friends say they were struck by the fact that the war was not mentioned in any way at her graduation ceremony. I suspect that was the case that year in most universities across the country. But during those very years, 2003-2007, 4,289 American young people were killed. Over that decade, more than 5000 American children lost a parent or a sibling to combat, while the rest of the nation just carried on.
This is why I have been and remain, willing to take risks to cover the stories I cover.
So have many of my brave colleagues, far too many of whom have lost their lives or been badly wounded doing so. I still to this day cannot walk into a room and see Bob Woodruff without tearing up. Miracle Bob.
Each of us has a stake in the course and destiny of the nation. As journalists, we have an opportunity to help our country engage.
I want people to know about the world….to remember. I want people to feel. I want people to question. I want people to remember that right now in Walter Reed there is a young man who was badly injured a few weeks ago, who has absolutely no family around him. I want people to remember that in that same hospital is a young officer, who just a few years ago stood with three other soldiers as groomsmen in a wedding. All four have now been wounded.
But none would ever want to be seen as a victim.
I want people to know about the young spouse I met this year, married to her husband just a few months before he went off to war and lost three limbs. When she first saw him in the hospital he said, “You do not have to stay with me.” Her response? She looked him right in the eye and with a great deal of volume said, “Don’t you ever friggin say that again.” And that wasn’t the exact f-word she used. Today, that couple is a model of inspiration and love and optimism.
But I also want to question and that is my duty. I have indeed seen heroes in the military, but after decades of listening to military leaders talking about ‘zero tolerance” for sexual assault I want to know why Defense Secretary Leon Panetta acknowledged several months ago that close to 19,000 sexual assaults are still occurring every year.
I want to know why military-age men killed during air strikes in Afghanistan have not been counted as civilian deaths even when targeters are not certain who those men are.
And I want to know why, after a decade of “cultural training,” our soldiers are still accidentally burning Korans.
We can get get those answers and we can make people care and engage.
The former New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, when talking about Fred Friendly, said, “Television is the most powerful medium for getting people to remember, and Fred found a way to use it like nobody else has.”
That is something we need to recommit to every day. I constantly hear the roar about television today — and sometimes I contribute to it. The dismay over the loss of viewers, over what some see as a loss of integrity and over the direction the news business is taking. Fred Friendly heard the same decades ago. But he kept fighting.
I don’t have much patience for complaining, without acting. We have to motivate our viewers, our listeners our readers to keep watching, to keep learning, to keep remembering. We have to maintain the standards that we cherish.
I really had no idea I wanted to be a journalist when I was young. I just fell into it. But I was passionate about learning, about reading. I was curious every single day when I woke up, and still am. And when I walked into one of my first newsrooms I noticed a hole in the wall. A reporter had put his fist through it. Like Fred Friendly – though in a different way – that reporter had stood up for what he believed was right. I looked at that hole in the wall and thought, “I think this profession will suit me quite well.”
I do not advocate punching holes through walls, but I do believe we should make sure that we maintain a strong voice for the public, for informing the public.
The news menu today is vast and varied. Admittedly my stories fall more in the vegetable category. I am rarely the dessert. But who among us wants to skip dessert, wants to learn only about the complexities of conflict, but not about the richness and quirkiness of our culture. There is a place for all of that among the meat and potatoes and green beans as long as the same rules of integrity apply.
The highest compliment I ever receive is not for a scoop, although believe me I love those, it is when someone calls me up and says, “You got that story exactly right.” You made me watch.
In the coming years, I will have a particular challenge. I know that the war weariness is going to get worse. And it will get worse just as tens of thousands of veterans return home. It is estimated that 1 in 5 of those veterans will have mental health issues. That is 20 percent of the more than 2 million Americans who have served in these wars. Whether it is post traumatic stress, or traumatic brain injury, this country is going to have to welcome and care for those veterans and their families. And these mental health issues will be with us not just for the next few years but for decades to come. Those are stories we need to tell and keep telling. And we have to follow those returning veterans who have so much to offer the civilian world and want to do their part to build bridges between the military and the rest of us. But we will also tell the inspiring stories of our changing world, of Arab springs of young men and women in Yemen who want to grow up to be doctors and teachers and hate what Al Qaeda is do
ing to their country. And of young Americans who commit themselves to helping those who suffer abroad.
I thank you all for the opportunity to talk about what I love and for giving me this meaningful award. I thank you Ruth, thank you John, thank you Lee. To My wonderful colleagues from ABC who have taught me so much.
I am proud to stand with you. And especially to those younger colleagues. I feel very strongly that I owe you, we all owe you the gift of mentoring. I had a magnificent mentor in John McWethy, who we lost too soon. You will have a tougher fight, but I have no doubt that you will be inspired and find the stories that are waiting to be told.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio