I don’t cry easily, but I sat in front of the TV, tears spilling down my face.
It was Memorial Day weekend, and I was watching PBS’s National Memorial Day Concert. I had no idea what that program would do to me.
You see, on Memorial Day so many of us say, “Let’s honor our service men and women” but we say it almost out of obligation, or maybe out of tradition.
And I picture throngs of men and women all spiffed up in dress uniforms, faces hidden under overhanging hats, and I hear bands playing peppy patriotic music, and the words for our service people are all so generic, so impersonal, so shallow: “Thank you,” we say, “for serving our nation.”
But this year, the story I watched on TV transformed an abstract, generic, impersonal concept—“Thanks to all who have served, fought, and died for our country”—and made it real for me, personal, and, reaching for a tissue, I realized, again, that stories are powerful!
Actor Gary Sinise stood on stage and told John Peck’s account of receiving a severe wound in Iraq from an exploding IED (improvised explosive device): A jagged piece of metal penetrated his brain.
In San Diego, the Marine received treatment for short- and long-term memory loss, an inability to speak or balance himself, and other injuries.
But John was no quitter: He forced himself to recover so he could reenlist.
During that time, he fell in love and married a young lady on Valentine’s Day, 2010.
Two months later, at age 25, John was deployed to Afghanistan. In the Helmand Province, sweeping for IEDs, one exploded. All he remembers is flying through the air, surrounded by dirt and colors and shapes.
The next thing the strong, tall young man knew, he was waking up in a Navy hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. He learned then that he’d been in a medically-induced coma for two months, and “basically found out that I don’t have arms or legs no more,” he said. They’d been blown off by the exploding IED.
John experienced an immense sense of loss and grief and anger—and it was more than he could take in and process.
Soon his bride left him. That was the worst blow, he said. He despaired, hiding himself away in his hospital room.
For months, John was in and out of consciousness.
But eventually he asked himself, “Am I going to live or die?”
And once again Marine Sgt. John Peck determined not to be a quitter. He decided to stop feeling sorry for himself. Deciding to be a happy person, he vowed, “I am going to take back my life one day at a time.”
And he did.
He has endured dozens of surgeries. He wears a prosthetic hook at the end of his left arm and has agreed to be the world’s first quadruple limb transplant patient.
In the meantime, John navigates around his home, cooks his meals, brushes his teeth, sky dives, and scuba dives.
And John Peck learned to laugh again.
And he learned to fall in love again.
Retired Marine Sgt. John Peck is getting married in November.
When I heard the story of just one person, when I listened to John Peck’s story, it changed me. That’s the power of story.
John Peck’s story put flesh and blood and bones and face and heart and personality into the words Memorial Day. It reached right into my heart and broke it, and I bawled my eyes out. His story made me care about him and changed the way I’ll view Memorial Day in the future. That’s the power of story.
Because I heard this one man’s story, I now can say, from the bottom of my heart, “Thank you for serving our nation. Thank you for your bravery. Thank you for the extreme sacrifices you made. You are one of my heroes.”
That’s the power of story.
What about your stories?
Perhaps you want to instill honesty in your children and grandchildren, and a sense of commitment. Maybe you want future generations to live as good citizens and hard workers. You pray they’ll be God-honoring, thoughtful, and generous.
Your job is to take those vague concepts—honesty, commitment, good citizenship, hard work, honoring God, thoughtfulness, and generosity—and write stories that will make them come alive, stories that will make them personal and show them to be attainable.
For example, what story can you write to illustrate the importance of honesty? Who modeled for you what commitment is? How did you learn the importance of being thoughtful and generous? Etc.
They can tenderize our hearts,
make us more civilized,
and challenge us to live and love well.