Donald Holleder: Awful Grace

One of Robert F. Kennedy’s favorite quotes – one enlarged by the poignant and searing nature of his death by gunshot in 1968 – very much applies to the life of a West Point legend, Major Donald W. Holleder. Don’t know his story? It’s a painful but beautiful one.


The ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus provided a quote which echoes through the pages of time. It’s a quote which resonates and hits the soul with full frontal impact in the aftermath of a particularly sad yet honorable death, the kind of death endured by Don Holleder.

“He who learns must suffer. Even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart. And in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

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It’s one thing to die in war because of something stupid – consider the fictional death of the actual Don Draper in Mad Men, who perishes because Dick Whitman (played by Jon Hamm) drops a lighter and creates an explosion. Many other deaths in war occur in the chaos of battle, when hostile activities are just occurring. These deaths all sting for the families who endure the profound pain of loss, but they don’t carry some greater lesson or an inspiring subtext. Bullets fly, ambushes are sprung, lives are lost. It’s hard to learn or say more in the face of such loss and death.

However, there are also those deaths whose wrenching sadness is also accompanied by a story of valor, a concrete demonstration of what’s best in all of us as human beings. Some deaths make us want to be better people, to imagine a day – and a state of being – in which we can be as strong and courageous as the person who truly did give his life for others in a moment of overwhelming and, ultimately, mortal difficulty.

Such was the death of Major Don Holleder.

I could write my own words of prose on this man, but the treatment of his life is better left to the skilled mind of Frank Fitzpatrick. On the eve of the 2012 Army-Navy Game in Philadelphia, Fitzpatrick – writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer - filed a story on Holleder which included these extended excerpts – read them and learn about Major Holleder if you don’t already know his powerful contribution to his fellow men and women:

In 1955, he had been the improbable quarterback in Army's improbable upset of Navy. Twelve years later, heading into a Vietnamese jungle, into the smoky heart of a battle he did not have to join, Maj. Donald W. Holleder was running again.

"I couldn't keep up with him," recalled Tom "Doc" Hinger, an Army medic during that bloody October 1967 clash with North Vietnamese regulars in Ong Thanh. "His legs were churning. He just looked back and yelled, 'C'mon, Doc, there's wounded in there. Let's go get them.' "

Hinger, who had retrieved several injured colleagues already, got close enough to the powerfully built officer to see a sniper's bullet fell him. The medic lifted Holleder's head into his arms and watched the big man die. The father of four young daughters was 33.

(snip)

His name, which can be found on an Arlington National Cemetery gravestone and on Panel 28, Row 25, of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, lives on elsewhere, too. The military academy's athletic center bears his name. So does a plaque in the National Football Foundation's Hall of Fame. And the Army football team's Black Lion Award, presented earlier this week to backup tailback Scott Wesley, honors Holleder and the Black Lions of the Second Battalion who died along with him that distant day.

There is resonance in his story because his final moments - ordering his helicopter pilot to land, jumping from the craft and sprinting toward his wounded colleagues - so closely mirrored the attributes he displayed on the football field that season a half-century ago (in 1955).

(snip)

"Holleder was a natural athlete, big, strong, quick, smart, aggressive, a competitor," (legendary Army coach Red) Blaik wrote in his 1960 autobiography. "I knew he could learn to handle the ball well and to call the plays properly. Most important, I knew he would provide... leadership."

Navy, with a 6-1-1 record and the nation's top passer, future Midshipmen coach George Welsh, was a clear favorite when they arrived in Philadelphia. The night before the game, Blaik gathered his team at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel and told them he was wearying of those long postgame walks to shake hands with winning coaches.

"That walk tomorrow, before 100,000 people, to congratulate [Navy coach] Eddie Erdelatz would be the longest walk I've ever taken in my coaching life," he said. There was silence in the room. Then Holleder spoke. "Colonel," he said, "you're not going to have to make that walk."


Blaik, Army’s greatest coach, would not have to make that walk. Holleder made sure of it.

Holleder made outstanding defensive plays on separate drives to keep Navy from scoring. One of those plays came in the Cadets’ red zone. Having withstood the Midshipmen’s first-half flurry, Army became a revitalized team in the second half. Holleder led West Point’s offense to two touchdowns, while Army continued to shut down Navy’s defense. The Cadets earned a 14-6 victory, one which led one Douglas MacArthur – yes, him – to congratulate Blaik on the triumph.

On the football field in 1955, and in the jungles of Vietnam over a decade later, Don Holleder was the kind of person who led by the power of his example. The words he chose to speak – the words he felt were important enough to say – were backed up by every last ounce of sweat and striving, every intention to give his all to something greater than himself alone.

Football, of course, is supremely trivial. War is supremely consequential and full of carnage. Yet, there was – and still remains, in hindsight – a beautiful consistency about Don Holleder. What you saw was what you got, but more precisely, what you saw was selfless, resolute, and truly beautiful, everything you could want from your fellow man in any endeavor, especially the most dangerous endeavors one can undertake.

The awful grace of God, providing uplift and nourishment in the face of something as terrible as death – that is the sad but valuable fruit to come from the life-affirming sacrifice of Major Donald W. Holleder, a name whose story deserves to be kept alive for generations to come, as long as young men come to West Point to know what service is all about.



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