The Best and Worst of Mankind
By Lt. Col. Stanley Giles, TEC Chaplain, The I.G. Brown Air National Guard Training and Education Center
/ Published July 22, 2009
McGHEE TYSON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Tenn. --
Forty years ago tomorrow I was a Texas teenager, about to enter high school, and astronauts were about to land on the moon. To have lived and experienced that historic event remains a highlight of my life.
As a boy I had a love of all things science and space. Astronauts were my heroes. I recall listening, with my father, to the radio as he explained to my young brain those initial Mercury launches that barely touched the edge of space. In fifth grade my first research paper was on the topic of "Space" and I learned the necessity of narrowing one's literary topic.
Later, during the Gemini and Apollo missions, front page stories begged for my adolescent attention and I would take a break half way through my afternoon newspaper route, rest in the shade and read every line. Peer pressure eventually squelched my passion for science as it was decidedly uncool to pursue such matters, but it didn't bother my friend Ron Farris, who literally became a rocket scientist.
So four decades ago, on a hot, summer Sunday afternoon in San Antonio, I watched from our tiny living room as the astronauts maneuvered their fragile, bug-like landing contrivance to a soft landing. I stared transfixed at our black and white Zenith television, seemingly not breathing, until those eight immortal words were transmitted, "Houston, Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed!" That evening I joined the largest TV audience ever to watch as those two terrestrial travelers explored the moon.
That event was a ten year process and the product of unbelievable cooperation between individuals and entities, between government and private industry. It represented the zenith of technical expertise, and the timing of my birth allowed me to see humanity at its best.
When they finished that moonwalk I went outside and did what most probably did that night - I stared at the moon, mentally pinching myself, not believing it was happening. And, as I stood there I did something I've never told anyone; something sons of sergeants were not supposed to do, I found myself softly crying with joy, proud of what humans could do.
Fast forward not quite four decades, and I found myself on a similarly hot July evening in the bleak countryside of Iraq. I was a chaplain serving in a hospital which also provided care for wounded Iraqi civilians. And, as I walked through a ward I encountered an unusual scene - a young female Airman holding a weeping Iraqi teenager with a white bandage wound around his face.
A suicide bomber had decided that God wanted strangers dispatched into eternity because they believed differently. So he blew himself up in a public market, killing and wounding a number of his countrymen, including this young teenager.
Moments before I stopped by his bed he had been told the terrible news that in spite of the medical treatment, his blindness would be permanent. This young Airman was doing the best she could to comfort this young man whose future was now nearly hopeless.
When I was 14, I witnessed mankind at its best. When he was 14, he witnessed mankind at its worst. That evening I did something I've never told anyone; I found myself a private spot and cried, ashamed of what humans could do.
Those two events represented for me mankind at its extremes. Employing an astronomical term, I witnessed humanity at its apogee and its perigee, its best and its worst.
I will never walk on the moon nor do I plan to kill, either. But frequently I have a choice as to whether I will build or destroy, help or hurt; heal or wound. Hopefully I will choose the former. To do otherwise would shame me and tarnish God's creation.