Remarks on Presenting the Young American Medals for Bravery

October 6, 1983

Thank you, Bill. Ladies and gentlemen, Members of the Congress, I think all of us can feel privileged to be here today. We are in the presence of authentic heroes. You know, there's a great tendency in this business of government to get lost in the pursuit of policy and power. We tend to forget in all the hustle and bustle of official Washington the really important things in our lives.

One of those important things is our sense of wonder at the incredible heights of generosity, courage, and magnificence that human beings can rise to. Well, I can think of no better way to renew that sense of wonder than the stories of our two medal winners here today. The accounts of their deeds are simple and straightforward, but they speak volumes about the mobility -- the nobility, I should say, of the human spirit and about the nobility of our two medal winners.

In December of 1982 Ben Pionke came upon a struggling 6-year-old boy who had fallen through the ice while playing on a pond in Clarendon Hills, Illinois, where Ben and the young man lived. Without hesitating, Ben went to the rescue. He crashed through the ice himself, into water that was over his head, but somehow managed -- Ben was 10 years old at the time -- to keep the younger boy's head above water, to get him to shore, finally to safety.

The facts surrounding the story of Karen Hartsock are also simple and brief. In June of 1982 the Russell County, Virginia, home of Karen, who was then 14 years old, was destroyed by fire. But Karen risked her own life to rescue two other members of her family. Karen suffered second- and third-degree burns over 80 percent of her body. This has required months of care in the Burn Unit and, later, the Children's Rehabilitation Center of the University of Virginia Medical Center. Karen was brave that night, and she's been brave ever since.

Ben and Karen, I think I speak for everyone here when I say you honor us with your presence. I know your families are proud of you and proud to be here today. And I know, Karen, that in one sense your father is not with us today. And I want to extend my sympathy to you and to the rest of your family. But in another sense, Karen, I believe with all my heart he is here. And he's very proud. I hope you know you gave him a priceless gift before he died -- wonderful moments of love and pride.

Someone once said that heroism is the brilliant triumph of the soul over the flesh -- that is to say, fear. Heroism is the dazzling and glorious concentration of courage. Well, it goes without saying that today all of us are dazzled by the deeds of these two medal winners and even more overwhelmed by the fact that they are so young.

``To believe in the heroic makes heroes,'' Disraeli said. I think what he meant was that only those societies which value the unselfish virtues that make up heroism will ever be lucky enough to have heroes. Ben and Karen are such heroes, and they've taught us again the value of courage and unselfishness and devotion to others.

Ben and Karen, for all of that, we're grateful to you, proud of you. We congratulate you, and God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 11:30 a.m. at the ceremony in the Rose Garden at the White House. He was introduced by Attorney General William French Smith. At the conclusion of his remarks, the President presented the medals to Carolyn Hartsock, 16, of Castlewood, Va., and Bennitt Pionke, 11, of Clarendon Hills, Ill.