Remarks at a Presentation Ceremony for the 1983 Young American Medals for Bravery

August 28, 1984

The Young American Medal for Bravery is so special that the law mandates that it be given to the recipients only by the President of the United States and is to be given to no more than two young people a year. And two points are made by these directives. One is that the recipients are so important to us that the Chief Executive of the Nation must personally honor them. And the other is that the winners are the very bravest of the brave.

Now, it's been said that of all the virtues, courage is the most important, because without it we would never have the strength to practice the others. Now, that's a comment about moral courage. But what about physical courage? The stories of these two young men tell us something about that.

Both these young people made a conscious decision under pressure to ignore personal safety, to ignore personal -- or potential pain and the possibility of death, and do an incredibly heroic thing -- save another human being from death.

On the evening of February 3d, 1983, the home of then 11-year-old Brian Gill was the scene of a terrible fire. Brian escaped without harm and was standing near a tree when he realized that his 3-year-old sister had become separated from his father and was still inside. Brian ran back into the house, which was now engulfed by flames. He felt his way along a wall, followed the sound of this sister's coughs, made his way to her side, and pulled her outside to safety. His little sister survived, and so did three other sisters. His 2-year-old brother, however, perished.

Almost 2 weeks after the fire in Brian Gill's house, 17-year-old, then, Jim Morris, was driving along an overpass near Grants Pass, Oregon. It was late and he was returning from work. Driving along, he and a companion looked down to see a car in flames on Interstate 5. A station wagon had been struck by a truck and was in flames, its gas tank ruptured. Morris raced for the car; and when he got there, he saw the driver, Thomas Bishop, trying desperately to get out. But Bishop was disoriented and shaking badly, and Jim tried to open the door of the burning car, but it stuck. So, he thrust himself through the driver's window, grabbed Bishop under the arms, and single-handedly pulled him to safety through the window. Less than a minute later, there was an explosion, and the entire inside of the car was engulfed in flames.

Later, Thomas Bishop wrote to Morris: ``It required much courage for you to come through those flames.'' If it had not been for what Jim Morris did, Thomas Bishop might not be alive. If it had not been for what Brian Gill did, his sister would not be alive.

As I look at these two young heroes, all I can think is how proud we are of you. And we're thankful for you.

I want to say to our audience, these are America's children. And look at what kind of people they are. The actions of these young men reflect great strength of character. We can only wonder how, at such a tender age, they managed to develop it.

I happen to think that it's always hard to be young. The young are so vulnerable and often feel misunderstood. But the children and teenagers and young adults our society has produced the last 20 years or so seem in some ways to have had it harder than many of us older folks did. We grew up in a different America -- an America of small towns and big families; an America where generations lived together and lines of authority, both within the home and outside it, were clear. We did not, for whatever reasons, question the premises of life so much. It seemed a more secure age.

But the world is changing. And the facts of our life have changed. Throughout our history we've relied on the family as the principal institution for transmitting values. But these days the American family is very different from what it was. Many families are headed by a single parent. Families are smaller, not only with fewer children but with fewer generations living together. The extended family is increasingly a thing of the past, and so is the old tradition of generation after generation living in the same town and the same house.

We're a country on the move. We're wed to mobility, and the ties that bind us seem looser. We watch a lot of television, seeking continuity and reassurance in the regular and predictable appearance of our favorite TV stars and programs. They visit us -- as if they were a friend or relative coming by for the evening. TV is increasingly becoming the American neighbor. And the fact that it serves that function reflects what it is that we're missing.

The point I'm making is that we're an America of changing institutions and changing traditions. And change can be difficult, especially for young people.

In the sixties, the first generation to completely feel the assault of modern life almost came apart. Our youth seemed disoriented. But now in the eighties, when some would have thought that things would be worse, they seem better. The young people of today are so solid, so alive to the good things in life, the deepest pleasure. They seem to care about the things worth caring about.

The polls show they're intensely patriotic. And they're very interested in home, career, and family -- all of the things that go into creating what we call society.

You saw the Olympic athletes a few weeks ago -- teenagers, many of them. You saw that they had faith in themselves; faith that great effort will be rewarded, that trying to improve your talents is worth it. You saw the love of country that they displayed with a shining lack of self-consciousness.

Somehow amidst all this change, all this movement, our young people have held on. What we're seeing, I think, is a reappreciation of our sense of national roots; a reappreciation of the traditions and values our country lived by; a reappreciation of the things that give us a sense of continuity, a sense that there is a purpose to life. And many of our young people seem to be doing it on their own, as if they're personally rediscovering these things and making them new again.

I'm not talking about nostalgia for the past, but refinding what worked about the past and bringing it into the present and the future. Refinding our bearings, forging a sense of continuity where it doesn't exist outwardly in the facts of our lives, we have to recreate connections -- connections with our family, between the family and the community. We need guideposts to help us find the way. And all this will evolve as we bring the best along with us.

People wonder why there's such a feeling of hope these days, and they come up with reasons -- oh, the stock market's up, inflation is down. That's only a part of it. I think we're feeling hope again, because we're taking old values and making them new again. And by giving them new life, they're giving us new life.

These two young heroes that we see here today reflect the achievements and heroism of a shining new generation. But as we honor them it's good for us to think of the quiet heroes of that generation -- the children who are starting out with some of the odds against them, the quiet heroes who haven't had a chance to develop their potential and show us their greatness.

Think of a child who's in a foster home. Many of them have special needs, and too many have a difficult time finding stable and loving permanent homes. Many have been abused in some way. Think of a child with drug problems -- a child who, because of bad judgments or peer pressures, becomes a slave to a terrible addiction. Think of a young person with a drinking problem enslaved in the same way and needing our concern. Think of a young person in high school who, for a whole combination of reasons, decides to drop out and end his or her education forever. Usually we say that child failed to continue. Sometimes I wonder if it isn't also true that we failed and our schools failed that child.

So many of these young people with things going against them early on are quiet heroes trying to do their best. I believe we must challenge ourselves, personally, to help them personally; to show them our support and affection and to show them we care -- asking today that all of us commit ourselves to those silent heroes; that together we accept a national challenge and see to it that children in foster care are given our special affection, that we make sure they're in loving homes.

We must make a greater effort to make our educational system so exciting and rewarding that young people don't want to drop out.

We must help those addicted to drugs and to alcohol by recognizing their problem.

Just today, however, it is Brian Gill and Jim Morris, who deserve our applause. Gentlemen, you represent the extraordinary courage of an extraordinary new generation. You're brave. You're decent. And we're proud of you. It's good to know that the future of our land will be in the hands of people like you.

I would now like to present to Brian Gill and Jim Morris the Young American Medal for Bravery.

[At this point, the President awarded the medals.]

Thank all of you very much, and God bless you. And I know you'd better get in the shade. [Laughter] Thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke at 1:31 p.m. in the Rose Garden at the White House.