Matthew Sanders: Will heroism die with 'the greatest generation?'

Published: Friday, May 31 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

U.S. Marines of the 28th Regiment of the Fifth Division raise the American flag atop Mt. Suribachi, Iwo Jima, in this file photo of Feb. 23, 1945. A search team is on the island of Iwo Jima looking for a cave where the Marine combat photographer who filmed the famous World War II flag-raising 62 years ago is believed to have been killed in battle nine days later, military officials said Friday, June 22, 2007. Sgt. Willam H. Genaust, a combat photographer, used a movie camera to film the raising of the flag atop Mount Suribachi, standing just feet away from AP photographer Joe Rosenthal, who took this iconic photograph. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal, File)

Joe Rosenthal, AP

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In the epic final battle for Gondor in the “The Lord of the Rings,” Sauron’s endless horde of orcs and horrific creatures amass outside the city gates. Gothmog, the disfigured, ruthless orc general declares, “The age of Men is over. The time of the Orc has come!” He was wrong. Heroes rose and turned the tide.

At the doors of our society stand staggering challenges and trends.

With family formation and birth rates down, and more than 50 percent of adults living single, where will the children come from needed to sustain our economy?

Our boys are failing. Women now outpace men gaining master's degrees by 30 percent.

More than 13 percent of Millennials remain unemployed, and 40 percent still live at home.

Debates over civil and religious liberties polarize hearts and homes.

Youth from religious backgrounds struggle with their faith, largely due to disconnects over teachings on sexuality.

We face a plague-like health crisis. More than 100 million people in the U.S. live with sexually transmitted disease, with half of new cases coming among our youth, at an annual treatment cost of $16 billion.

Yet despite the disfiguring effects of these societal ills, our colleges and media openly mock family, standards and self-sacrifice at seemingly every turn. Instead they herald permissiveness, climate sensitivity and government dependency. This torrent of dismal data overwhelms and discourages many. Can anything be done? Are we destined to buckle under the weight of our own pitiful foolishness?

I love the rally cry of Aragorn at the black gates of Mordor, "A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship. But it is not this day."

My heart took courage this Memorial Day as I reflected on previous generations of heroes. In particular, I thought of my grandfather, who served as a Marine in World War II. O.T. Sanders grew up in Arkansas and Kansas where he was a standout athlete and student, and held the state javelin record until I was a boy. I remember as a teenager being amazed that Grandpa could still throw a rock further than me out into the lake.

His family migrated to Idaho during the depression after a catastrophic fire destroyed their Kansas property and they had no recourse.There he became a milkman, eventually meeting my lovely strawberry-blonde grandmother. With remarkable hope and love they started a family. They lived their early years in a meager home, but found joy in their relationship and small children.

Then word came that my grandmother's brothers had been captured on Wake Island after holding off the Japanese with construction equipment and a few weapons. My grandfather enlisted in the Marines in order to fight for the cause of freedom and to help liberate my great uncles. Not unlike Tolkien's fictional classic, he left hearth and home to fight epic battles on the islands and beaches of the Pacific to beat back the forces of tyranny and oppression.

A big, strapping man, O.T. lead an engineer's unit in beach landings at Saipan and Tinian while carrying the formidable Browning Automatic Rifle on his hip. While preparing for the invasion of Iwo Jima, he collapsed with rheumatic and typhoid fever, eventually waking up in Honolulu weeks later. He never returned to active combat, but both he and his brothers-in-law survived the war.

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