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Sunday, July 14, 2024 - 06:07 PM


First Published in 1994


Do great people make history or does history make great people? Is it the larger than life character that molds and shapes events that determines the course of human existence? Or, more often than not, do events place a common person in a time and circumstances that give rise to uncommon human behavior?

Lenny Skutnik was a low level federal employee working in Washington, DC on the morning of January 13, 1982. While driving to work that day he found himself a witness to human events that drew him into dramatic circumstances that nobody could have predicted. On that day an airplane crashed into the Potomac River and Lenny Skutnik was there. As he watched on the riverbank along with dozens of other people, passengers from the plane crash were struggling to survive in the frigid water. Lenny saw one woman in particular who was too weak to make it ashore, she was drowning as people watched. Some force heretofore unknown to Lenny stirred within him and he reacted in an unusual way. Lenny stripped off his coat and shoes and jumped into the freezing water to rescue the helpless woman. He was the only person of those on the shore to do so. Against all odds Lenny managed to get her and himself to shore and safety. Simply put, Lenny saved this total stranger’s life. President Ronald Reagan noted Lenny Skutnik in his State of the Union speech that year, making Lenny an uncomfortable hero.

What instinct stirs within the mind of a human being that would drive one to risk their own life to save anyone much less a total stranger? If another plane were to crash today in Washington, DC would another Lenny Skutnik come forward to risk his life?

In America the heroic character has always been a part of the fabric of our society. The earliest settlers who discovered and tamed the frontier established the rugged individual mold. The soldiers who fought to establish and preserve our country formed a model that recognizes duty, honor and country. The cowboys who had a code which centered on hard work helped tame the west.  The immigrants that flocked to this country and worked their way into the lifeblood of this land asked only for the opportunity to succeed. Lenny Skutnik came from the same mold all those people who helped establish what this country has always been about. Lenny Skutnik was as American as apple pie.

If the circumstances required it would another Lenny Skutnik come forward to risk it all for someone else? Or is our society changing in ways that have altered the American character, diminished our best qualities and eliminated the heroic impulse?

Boko Harem is a radical Islamic terror group that operates in Nigeria. When it kidnapped a few hundred young girls and threatened to sell them into sexual slavery, President Obama sent unarmed personnel to find the kidnapped girls. Frankly, that wasn’t good enough. While he has made it clear on more than one occasion that he doesn’t believe America should be the world’s policeman, this is the sort of event that begs to differ with the President. Simply put, only America could have gotten those girls back…but nobody did.

We had an excellent example of the same right stuff that Lenny Skutnik had in Bengahzi, Libya in 2012. Six former special operations military men were hopelessly outnumbered trying to defend the US Consulate there. Attacked by hundreds of radical Muslim jihadists four men died, including our Ambassador Chris Stevens. In spite of their losses they saved the lives of 36 Americans. That is what our national character has always been, men willing to give the “last full measure of devotion.”

Maybe that is why Barack Obama is so despised. All Obama’s efforts aimed at changing the country can be seen in how he has diminished the American character. Lying by elected officials is now the new normal. Obama has tried to destroy the American spirit, the rugged individualism that built the country. In Obamanation the “right stuff” is the “free stuff” given out by a benevolent government.

A POTUS with character like Lenny Skutnik would have gone after the girls kidnapped by Boko Harem. He would have identified those responsible for killing our Ambassador to Bengahzi, Libya and brought them to justice. The most depressing element of progressivism is that we are no longer certain of our national character … can we still be Lenny Skutnik?


David W. Thompson worked in government, education and the non-profit sector for more than forty years. A graduate of Westminster College and Harvard University, he resides in Easley, SC. You can follow him on his blog, “Smokealarms2015.com.”