Life is difficult. This truth is evident to all of us, especially to our military. It is difficult, in part, because we are often confronted with the responsibility of having to make tough decisions, decisions whose consequences go far beyond ourselves.
As you know, I usually write about the qualities that are present in our military. This story is about a teenager who acted in a way that would be very recognizable to our servicemen and women. He made a very mature and sensitive decision on the spur of the moment. It is also about the unforeseen consequences that have arisen as a result of his choice.
The teenager’s name is Zachary Hougland. He is a high school cross country runner for Davis County High School in Iowa. He is a gifted runner too. He finished in first place in a recent district championship race, becoming the first student from his high school to be a district champion.
It is not his victory that is remarkable though; it is what he did after crossing the line.
While he was celebrating his victory, full of the joys that go with such an achievement, he noticed that one of his fellow competitors was struggling. He was not looking good. The strain of the distance on the other runner was evident. He was pale and clutching at his chest, breathing hard. It was at this point that the true character of Zachary Hougland came out.
He could not turn away from the suffering in this other runner’s face. Forgetting everything else, the joy of victory, the elation of physical prowess, all the things that are often promoted in our culture as the “peak experiences” of life, Zachary Hougland acted instinctively, out of a sense of compassion and duty toward the suffering other. He went to the aid of Garret Hinson, the kid who was struggling.
He ran back onto the course and put his arm around Garret Hinson, a kid he did not know, and didn’t even know which school he was running for. Hougland helped him to get to the finish line so he could complete the race. He sacrificed to help someone overcome, to not give in, to struggle against the body’s desire to stop the pain, to cross the finish line.
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According to FOX News, the Iowa State Athletic Association may take Zachary Hougland’s first place finish away from him because of his act of compassion, saying that it violated the National Federation of State High School Association race rules: “If a competitor receives or gives assistance, that competitor is disqualified from the event.” When asked why he did it, Hougland said:
“I couldn’t stand seeing him like that. I felt that someone should help him so I pictured myself in his shoes.”
Such an act, in any of us, has to come from an abiding sense of the intrinsic value of the other. It is a recognition of the value and the equal importance of the other, especially in the presence of suffering. This attitude requires a certain maturity of character. Young Zachary Hougland seems to understand a concept that is also familiar to our military: “Leave no man behind.” It is the core meaning of the United States Marine motto, “Semper Fidelis.” Such an attitude is also central to Christianity.
would like to offer our thanks and our admiration to Zachary Hougland. In his genuine and spontaneous act of compassion for a fellow competitor, he has given us an example of true character. It is great to see such character in one so young. Keep striving to be the best, Zachary. This is a good thing. But never lose sight of what is important either. The real winners are those who recognize that we are all in this together. Even in the heat of healthy competition, we must never lose sight of the greater good.
This is the core of the military ethic as well.
It is the ethic that keeps “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”