The Des Moines Register this week wrote up a marvelous profile in courage. The subject of the story was National Guardsman Ryan O’Leary, a veteran who has served two tours of duty in Iraq under the authority of the Army. Now, the 28-year-old O’Leary has gone back to Iraq. This time, however, he has done so without the support of the U.S. military. In fact, both the FBI and the military – to say nothing of O’Leary’s family – have pleaded with him to stay home.
“ISIS isn’t just a fight for them,” O’Leary told reporters, referring to the people of Iraq. “It’s a fight for all of us. We need to help them out and we’re not doing it. The only thing I’m getting out of it is knowing that I’m helping make change in a country that deserves it and for a people that deserve it.”
O’Leary has joined up with the Kurdish Peshmerga army in northern Iraq with the intention of providing training and assistance that has been slow to come from the Pentagon. By taking up in Kurdistan, O’Leary is surrounded by people sympathetic to America, fiercely determined to stand against ISIS, and under hostile attack. He’s not carrying a death wish, but he understands the risks.
“If it happens, at least I died doing something I believed in,” he said before leaving for the Middle East.
Personal safety isn’t the only sacrifice O’Leary is making. By going AWOL, he risks being tossed out of the military. He did not clear his personal mission with his superiors in the National Guard, and he could even face prosecution upon returning home. Even if that doesn’t happen, he will almost certainly lose his military benefits. But for O’Leary, not even the threat of jail time will sway him from doing what he believes is the right thing.
Valor and Honor
Far too often, stories like this one get shoved under the rug in favor of sensationalized tales of cowardice, racism, and terror. The media has a vested interest in making Americans believe the world is falling down around them; more people tune in when they have something to get angry about.
But every once in a while, it’s nice to step back and realize that concepts like bravery, honor, and valor are not just relics of the past. They are all around us. We don’t have to stretch the definition of courage to include cross-dressers if we stop to consider the real heroes. Whether O’Leary’s crusade falls on the foolish side or not is up to you to decide. What cannot be questioned is his heart.