US Coins

Monday Morning Brief for June 5, 2023: Everyday heroism

Dr. John Cheng was killed May 15, 2022 trying to disarm a gunman during a mass shooting at Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, California.

Image of Dr. John Cheng from Facebook; church image courtesy of Geneva Presbyterian Church.

The congressional gold medal was originally conceived as the legislature’s greatest honor — one intended to celebrate major victories on the battlefield or on the ocean or lake. Later, honorees came to be selected from the medical giants or for achieving great social and scientific accomplishments. In recent years, that has changed.

Legislators now want to celebrate everyday heroism, the kinds of extraordinary actions that men and women take every day in cities and towns and villages nationwide, with a congressional gold medal. Stop a gunman; be awarded a congressional gold medal. Die fighting a wildfire; earn a congressional gold medal. Serve in a small military unit; earn a congressional gold medal.

To earn Congress’s highest honor, one no longer has to change the American experience in a major way. Do something that catches the attention of a member of Congress and the legislative process begins.

Please understand that I am in no way belittling the sacrifices of civilians like Dr. John Cheng and first responders like the Granite Mountain Hotshots of Arizona or the women called the “Donut Dollies.” Heroes all, who deserve to be celebrated and remembered and honored — but not necessarily with a congressional gold medal. Find other ways to shine a light on their acts of heroism and service.

The congressional gold medal should be reserved for the greatest of us. Eliminate a medical scourge like Dr. Jonas Salk in his eradication of polio, and yes, you deserve to be honored. Millions of lives were saved from death or a lifetime of medical trauma; Salk’s creation of a polio vaccine changed the world for the better for billions. Dr. John Cheng’s sacrifice of his life was heroic and is deserving of honors, but his act, his death, will not change the world.

As I have written before, legislation seeking congressional gold medals now seems to focus on media headlines affecting a few and not on history’s acknowledgement that some sacrifice, some scientific or medical discovery, some military victory, some fight for social justice, made things better for many.

Many bills now seek to honor small military units or civilian organizations serving the military in times of war. It is a shame that the people serving in those units have been forgotten by history. They need to be remembered. But is a congressional gold medal the best way to recognize what they achieved? Not enough gold medals can be made to award to all the heroes who deserve them under current standards.

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