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What Ever Happened To The Word "Duty"?

Duty. This is a word we don’t hear very much anymore. Webster’s defines duty as “something that you must do because it is morally right or because the law requires it.” There are other ways to describe something required by law. Those are obligations - something we do in large part because the consequences of not doing it are not good. It’s the “morally right” element of the definition that we may have lost.

When I was seven years old in October 1962, my family lived in Long Beach, California. My father commanded a destroyer based there, the U.S.S. Henderson. Being in second grade I did not have much sense of the Cuban missile crisis, but I have a vivid memory relating to it. One day I was at the base with my mother. Maybe it was a doctor’s visit or maybe we were going to the Exchange. Of that I have no recollection. Regardless, being a typical little boy I always liked to look at the ships - and there were always a bunch of them. Typically, it was a busy place. However, that day the horseshoe shaped ship basin was empty. The piers were deserted and not much was going on. Even at that age it struck me as eerie and unsettling.

Looking back, it’s easy to understand that as we were veering very close to war with the Soviet Union the Navy did not want any of its ships caught in port. If the ships could get up steam they should not be sitting in that harbor where they would be sitting ducks. The crews of those ships were indeed “required by law” to do their duty and put to sea. In one sense, that part is easy to understand although it must have been a strange feeling knowing that in the initial phase of the war those crews would likely be safer than their families back in Long Beach. We lived only about a mile from the Navy’s Seal Beach weapons depot and not that far from the base itself. If nuclear war came, both would have been prime targets in the first minutes and we would not have been spared. I am sure most of the crew members’ families were similarly situated.

My father had no choice - although even if he had there is no doubt in my mind what he would have done - but what about my mother? She had no legal requirement to stick around and knowing what could happen - indeed what seemed likely - who could have faulted her for putting her two young boys in the car and heading back to her home in West Virginia or my father’s home in Alabama.  Having been married to my father through World War II and Korea, she understood quite well the significance of that empty ship basin. But, Jane Rawls was the captain’s wife. Fleeing or even showing any sort of fear would not set the right example for the other families of that ship, let alone her own family. It would not be “morally right” so I suspect the thought never really crossed her mind - or if it did she kept it completely to herself. The funny thing is that I would guess that my mother’s view of things was not at all unusual.

What made me think of this on a steamy Virginia summer day? Last week I was talking with someone who has been in touch with us about a potential case. He had filed his own claim and, surprisingly, it appeared that the VA was going to make him an offer. I told him to just wait to see what the VA offered him before hiring us. It would make no sense to pay us if he didn’t have to do so. The veteran was shocked, surprised that I so matter of factly did not try to persuade him to sign the retainer we had offered him some time ago. As I have thought about it, it makes me kind of sad that it surprised him. I suppose that is an unfortunate commentary on our world.

Now, being a lawyer, I have to add a final caveat: I am not encouraging anyone to file their own claim. Typically, it just does not work. On the other hand, I do encourage everyone to have a bit more faith in humanity. Perhaps we all need to hold ourselves to a higher standard. Nowadays we hear a lot about “rights.” We do not hear nearly as much about duty. We hear about obligations but rarely about what is morally right. No matter what you do, I think we all need to always have a sense of doing what is morally right. And that is something much more than our basic legal obligations. 


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