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What is Courage?

Baltimore -- One of the highlights of my military career occurred in June of 2000, when I was able to witness the induction of 22 World War II Medal of Honor recipients into the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes. The ceremony was part of a week-long series of events celebrating the belated award of the nation's highest honor to these brave men.

It may seem odd for such event come to mind as we prepare to once again commemorate the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, but as I think about the thousands of Americans who have fought and died in the eight years since that terrible day, I cannot escape the memory of two stories I learned in the summer of 2000, and one I that learned several years later.

The first story is that of Army 2nd Lt. Daniel Inouye, one of the men who received the Medal of Honor in 2000. Today, Inouye is a U.S. senator, but on April 21, 1945, he was an infantry platoon leader serving on the front line in Italy.

On that day, despite a bullet wound to the stomach, he single-handedly charged an enemy machine gun nest and destroyed it with hand grenades and submachine gun fire. He then proceeded to knock out a second German position - again, single-handedly. Just as he was about to throw a hand grenade into a third enemy position, his right elbow was smashed by a rifle grenade. He managed to pry the grenade he had been about to throw from his now-useless right hand and hurl it into the German position with his left, obliterating it.

Inouye pulled himself to his feet and continued advancing, firing his Thompson submachine gun with his left hand as his shattered right arm hung limp and useless at his side. He kept up his attack until a bullet through the leg sent him tumbling back down the hill. When some of his men moved to help him, he ordered them to press the attack, shouting, "Get back up that hill! No one called the war off!" Though grievously wounded, he refused to be evacuated from the scene until the battle was won and his platoon was secured in defensive positions.

What makes this story doubly remarkable is that Inouye is a Japanese American. As he was fighting in Europe, tens of thousands of other Japanese Americans were languishing behind barbed wire in prison camps across the United States. And yet Inouye and thousands like him volunteered to fight for the republic that had essentially branded them traitors. By the end of the war, 33,000 Japanese Americans would serve in the armed forces.

Inouye arrived home with the Distinguished Service Cross, the Bronze Star Medal, two Purple Hearts, and 12 other awards and citations. He also arrived home with an empty right sleeve - the arm mangled during his daring attack had been amputated.

In San Francisco, Inouye, wearing his dress uniform with combat ribbons and decorations for valor, stopped to get his hair cut. But the barber didn't care that he was a wounded serviceman or that he had been awarded the nation's second-highest medal for valor. The only thing that mattered was that Inouye was "a Jap," and the barber refused to cut his hair. What an ignominious ending to a story of such incredible heroism.

My second story also involves a Japanese-American soldier, but he isn't the hero of this tale. Mits Usui served in the Pacific Theater during World War II as a member of the Army's secret Military Intelligence Service. The men of the MIS ran a double risk, in danger from both the enemy and from friendly soldiers who might mistake them for infiltrators.

In the documentary film "Beyond Barbed Wire," Usui described an event that occurred after his return from fighting in the Pacific. Decked out in dress uniform and paratrooper boots, he was boarding a bus in Los Angeles when a woman spat out, "Another Goddamn dirty Jap!"

But then something truly remarkable happened. As the stunned soldier sat in silence, the driver stopped his bus, turned to the woman and said in no uncertain terms, "Lady, you apologize to this American soldier or get off my bus."

Regrettably, the racial prejudice endured by men like Inouye and Usui didn't die at the end of World War II. This, sadly, is the subject of my final story. This story does not involve Japanese Americans and does not take place during World War II. It takes place today, and it is the story of Arab Americans - and of Americans who only happen to look Arabic.

Balbir Singh Sodhi came to the United States from Punjab in 1988 and settled in Arizona. He was neither Arab nor Muslim, and on Sept. 11, 2001, he was nowhere near New York or Washington, D.C. Despite all of this, four days later he was dead - shot down as he planted flowers outside his family-owned gas station.

The same day, the killer shot at another gas station, which was owned by a Lebanese American, and at a house owned by an Afghan family. As police took him away, he shouted, "I'm an American! I'm a damn American all the way! Arrest me and let those terrorists run wild!"

He wasn't alone. According to FBI statistics, in 2001 the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes grew by 1,600 percent from the previous year. As this story all too vividly demonstrates, bigotry in the guise of patriotism isn't just a relic of the past.

Sixty-five years ago, our nation was engaged in a great struggle against evil, just as it is today. And just as today, our nation then faced enemies of a particular, seemingly easily identifiable ethnic background. Back then we treated them - American citizens - as foreign enemies. They looked different, they had funny names, and their customs seemed strange. We didn't see fellow Americans, we saw enemy aliens. It was incomprehensible that they could feel the same sense loyalty to America as Americans of European descent, that they would be willing to put their lives on the line in her defense.

And yet they did, and they continue to do so today.

What is courage? A badly wounded man who single-handedly charges three machine gun nests certainly qualifies. But so too does someone who risks his job to stand up against injustice. And while no one would ever suggest that facing down a bigot rates the Medal of Honor, in its own way the type of moral courage displayed by that bus driver is every bit as meaningful as the physical courage of men like Inouye and Usui.

They are examples we would do well to learn from.