URBANA — American exceptionalism is a term often used to describe the incredible accomplishments of Americans. President Kennedy referred to it, as has every President since. Except President Obama, who denied American exceptionalism existed and even apologized for our worldwide efforts to promote the American way.
Examples of American exceptionalism that come to my mind include former Supreme Court Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall, featured in the recent movie Thurgood, and Jesse Owens, who ran in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, in the pre-war Germany of Adolf Hitler.
And I can think of no better term than exceptionalism to describe Owens’ Olympic long-distance running teammate Louis Zamperini. The subject of the book and movie Unbroken, Zamperini went on to serve his country in World War II. He was the bombardier of a B-24 Liberator that crashed into the sea due to mechanical failure. He spent 47 days adrift with a crew mate on an inflatable raft, was captured and imprisoned by the Japanese and survived two years of incredible torture before being rescued by American forces. He has a very inspirational life story, and I highly recommend the book and movie.
While the term exceptionalism isn’t used as often as it once was, I think it still describes many Americans – people ranging from Bill Gates with Microsoft and Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame to Tom Brady with the Patriots and LeBron James of the Cavaliers. You may also know individuals in your community who exhibit many of the traits of American exceptionalism.
For instance, Paul Kari, a respected West Liberty farmer. He quietly exhibited American exceptionalism in Vietnam in the 1960s and ‘70s.
He was born in 1935 and grew up on his family’s farm in Medina County. He was raised by first-generation immigrant parents who bordered on being subsistence farmers. They grew a few crops, maintained a small dairy herd, and fed out some feedlot cattle. His parents expected Paul to continue in their footsteps on the family farm.
Paul stepped out of his parents’ mold, aspiring to become a veterinarian. While in Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) at Ohio State, he got the “bug” to fly. He took lessons in a single-engine Cessna. By the time he got his pilot’s license, he was enthralled with flying.
Graduating with a degree in animal science, toward his goal of becoming a veterinarian, he decided his best bet for paying for vet school would be to enlist in the armed services for three years and use the GI bill.
So, he enlisted in the Air Force and trained as a jet pilot. Unfortunately, the Air Force extended the length of service time by a couple of years additional military service for the GI bill. But he was hooked on flying.
After excelling in his two years of fighter pilot training, his next stop was Ramstein Air Base in Germany, from which he provided fighter protection for the troops and bombers in the Vietnam conflict. His skill as an F-4 fighter pilot earned him European Top Gun honors. He was the crème de la crème.
Then this Ohio farm boy/veterinarian-want-to-be was shot down over North Vietnam on Father’s Day in 1965. He suffered a serious back injury when he ejected from his plane. He received no medical attention for his injuries, and his injuries still plague him.
Only the twelfth American captured by the Viet Cong, he spent nearly eight years in North Vietnamese prisons. He was moved 26 times by the Viet Cong to avoid discovery by the Americans.
His captors tortured him several times a week to break his spirit, provided him only a bucket for sanitation, and served him bug-infested rice and a half quart or so of water a day. The Viet Cong provided him a Christmas “feast,” a stale French bread sandwich containing a big slab of pork fat.
Most American POWs were kept in isolation, but as the prisoner census increased, the Viet Cong began assigning two prisoners to each 8-by-12-foot concrete cell, furnished with a blanket on a concrete bed and a bucket for sanitation.
Each Christmas the Viet Cong videotaped prisoners at a meal to give the appearance they were well-cared for. These videos were generally aired on American network news during the holiday season. Kari avoided this film shoot to prevent any appearance that he was cooperating with the enemy.
He didn’t find out until near the end of his detention that no one in his family knew whether he was dead or alive. He had seemingly disappeared off the face of the earth seven years earlier. Later, he did appear in a video shoot, which aired on American news – the first time his family knew he was still alive.
Near the end of the war, Kari’s eyesight began to fail, likely caused by vitamin deficiencies. To this day he lacks central vision. Early in his captivity, his weight dropped from 175 to 103 pounds. As the war continued, quantities of food increased slightly. At his release he weighed 130 pounds.
Service members pay a personal price for being away from their families. In Kari’s case, his two children were deprived of their father for eight years – and were only 1 and 2 years old when he was captured. It was difficult, but gradually he re-established a relationship with them.
The U.S. government had been relatively supportive, paying a salary for family expenses and creating a nice reserve fund for the returning veteran. But he returned home to discover that nearly all the money intended for savings was gone and many bills were past due. And not long after his return, his wife divorced him and took the children with her.
Fortunately, he was able to continue a relationship with his kids. Today his son is a veterinarian, the dream his father always had.
Kari returned to farming. He purchased old, run-down farms. He restored their drainage systems, renovated the houses and barns, and returned the farms to productivity.
Over the years, he has restored 29 farms, from Ohio to Colorado. During his imprisonment he pledged to give half of whatever he had to God when he was able to return to the U.S. He told me that he is more committed than ever to do that.
I encourage you to read his story in his book, The Strength to Endure (Orange Frazer Press, Wilmington, Ohio, 937-382-3196). It is a tear-jerker, and an inspiring story of joy in the midst of hardship.