You’ve heard the cliche, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Unfortunately, it’s also true that you never run out of chances to make a bad impression. Passing through the coastal town of Darien, Georgia a few years ago, I came across the sign pictured here.
Robert Gould Shaw commanded the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, a Civil War regiment comprised of African Americans in the rank-and-file. The movie Glory wonderfully tells the story of Shaw and the 54th. It truly is a story of honor, courage and loyalty overcoming tremendous obstacles. The real Shaw was nearly as admirable as the movie version, and the story of the 54th is worth telling again and again – except, that is, for the terrible acts at Darien.
The movie portrays Shaw as an unwilling accomplice in the looting and burning of the town. I don’t know about that, but I do know that he was the Colonel of the regiment. He was in command and he was responsible for the actions of his Soldiers. On a sign in the village of Darien, his lapse of judgment is still remembered. A thousand good deeds are worthy of praise, but they don’t erase the stain of misconduct.
Moving forward a hundred years …
On May 10, 1972, Navy pilot Randy “Duke” Cunningham found himself in a swarm of enemy aircraft over North Vietnam. In a series of extended dogfights Cunningham managed to down three MiGs in one afternoon. The fight with the third MiG is the stuff of legends. After defeating the third MiG, Cunningham’s F-4 Phantom was hit by a Surface-to-Air missile. Cunningham wrestled his badly crippled F-4 back toward the carrier and out of enemy airspace. Damage to the aircraft forced him and his RIO Willie Driscoll to eject over the Gulf of Tonkin. They struggled in the water, but were eventually picked up by rescue helicopters. Cunningham remained the only pilot to down three MiGs in one sortie throughout the war. He was awarded the Navy Cross, two Silver Stars, fifteen Air Medals, and the Purple Heart. He went on to become a “Top Gun” instructor.
Well, that’s not the only thing he went on to do. In 2006, while serving in a position of great public trust and responsibility, he received an eight-year prison sentence for bribery related to defense contracts that he influenced. Cunningham is now a federal prisoner in Tucson, Arizona and his name has become a synonym for corruption.
Three thousand years ago, the women of Israel acclaimed their war heroes: “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands” Each went on to stain their hard-earned reputations. Nothing has changed. Honor is something that is tough to acquire but easy to lose. It isn’t something that you can put in a bank and draw on it when you have a deficit.
Hold on to your honor. It’s awfully hard to get your reputation back once you throw it away.
May God give you the grace today to be a person of integrity.