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THE TRUTH (SHORT STORY)

Rotarians repeat the Four-Way Test at each weekly club meeting, but how many of us pause to consider how challenging it is to incorporate the simple code of ethics into our business and personal lives? In the short story, “Truth,” Past District Governor Tom Carroll places a character from his recent novel, Colt’s Crisis, into a dilemma that challenges the character’s obligation to do the right thing, something that’s often more difficult than it seems.


“Can I warm up that coffee for you, Colton?” asked the petite waitress in a heavy Irish brogue who had been working at the Budd Bay Café for more than twenty years. Colleen Sullivan had moved to Olympia since emigrating from County Cork after her husband and only child died of influenza. The disease had spread through the small Irish village, and Colleen couldn’t bear the pain of living alone in the now quiet cottage. She made a new life for herself in the city on the southern shores of Puget Sound, and she knew she’d miss the café’s regular customers after she retired in December. Colleen knew Colton preferred his nickname, Colt, but loved that he had a classic Irish given name and used it whenever possible. The tiny woman pushed her now silver hair back off her forehead as she refilled Colt’s heavy ceramic mug.

Colt Garrett owned a small consulting firm in the state capitol, with a clientele that included many local agencies. He liked to spend mornings at the café because it gave him an hour to plan the remainder of the day and an informal place to meet with clients and friends. Looking out the large window next to the table, Colt, a retired naval officer, could watch the nearby marina on Budd Bay. He was a history buff and knew the inlet at the southernmost end of Puget Sound was named by U.S. Navy Lieutenant Charles Wilkes. In 1841, the famous explorer honored Thomas Budd, an officer in the United States Exploring Expedition. Colt smiled to himself, thinking most Olympia citizens probably thought the bay was named for the café.

“Thanks, Colleen. Oh, and could you bring another place setting? Someone will be joining me this morning.”

That, someone, was Peter Wright, a real estate agent who had expressed interest in joining Colt’s Rotary club. This morning’s meeting was the first of two interviews that Colt would use to form his opinion of Peter joining the club. Budd Bay Rotary was chartered several years earlier with a focus on supporting first responders. As a result, the club’s membership had multiplied, attracting a wide variety of community and business leaders. As one of the club’s first presidents, Colt’s role was to interview prospective members and explain how the club and Rotary worked. If Colt thought the candidate appeared to be a good fit for the club, he would recommend the person for membership. Peter had been suggested for club membership by Lisa Robertson, Puget Sound Medical Center’s CEO and the Rotary club’s president. Colt hoped this morning’s interview would be over relatively quickly; he had several more meetings scheduled later that day.

“And here we have Mister Colton Garrett himself, a lovely man to be sure,” Colleen announced as she seated a well-dressed man at a chair facing Colt across the table.

Colt stood and offered his hand. “Hi, I’m Colt Garrett. You must be Peter Wright?”

The two men shook hands and sat down. “I guess you recognize me from all those campaign signs?”

Colt chuckled. “Guilty! It’s hard to miss them when I drive downtown. How’s the campaign coming?” Peter Wright was running for a seat in the state’s legislature. Relatively new to the district, Peter had spent lots of his own money advertising his campaign against a long-serving incumbent.

“The campaign’s doing well, but’s it’s tough to know without polling.” Colt had occasionally considered running for office but considered himself an independent without political connections. And his wife, Linda, had made it clear that if he did run, it would be as a single man . . . and he would have to take the kids!

“So, Peter, this is the first of two meetings for us to get to know one another. I’ll explain about Rotary and our club, and I can answer any questions you may have about joining.”

Colt discussed Rotary and the Budd Bay Club’s origins and details regarding attendance, dues, and member involvement.

“One of Rotary’s core values is the Four-Way Test; it drives how we treat one another.”

Colt then said, “Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it bring goodwill and better friendships? Is it beneficial to all concerned?” Colt paused as he watched Peter take notes.

“Seems like a pretty good code of ethics to me,” commented Peter.

Colt nodded his head. “True, but you might be surprised how challenging it is to put into practice.”

Peter shared with Colt his life before moving to Olympia. He talked about his military service during the Iraq War and his transition into civilian life in the real estate business. The two men finished their coffee and agreed to schedule a follow-up meeting at Peter’s office downtown on Boston Street.

Colt Garrett finished the lunch he had brought from home and decided to take advantage of the break in his schedule to see what the internet had to say about Peter Wright. While some clubs performed background checks in their membership process, Budd Bay Rotary just checked personal references and a quick internet search for the prospective member. The first hit the search engine provided was Peter’s campaign site, so Colt decoded to start there. Peter’s bio page included the usual information regarding his family, business, and detailed information regarding Peter’s military service.

Colt read with increasing interest that Peter served for eight years in the Navy as a corpsman and was assigned to various Marine Corps units. Navy corpsmen provided medical support for the Marines. They were trained to run toward enemy action to assist fallen Marines, often risking their own lives. As a result, Navy corpsmen were the most decorated in the United States Navy. Peter’s biography stated he had been awarded the Navy Cross and two Silver Stars for bravery. Colt knew something about the criteria to be awarded the Navy Cross. He was awarded the medal for his Navy service during a highly classified mission in Europe. He clicked on a photo of Peter sitting at his real estate office desk and noticed a large oak-framed awards display mounted on the wall behind Peter. Clicking once more, this time on the awards display image, Colt zoomed in to see Peter’s awards in detail. Proudly displayed, they included an impressive set of military ribbons totaling eight rows, the highest award being the blue and white ribbon signifying the Navy Cross. Above the ribbon set was the silver insignia of the Fleet Marine Force. Beneath the ribbon set was a black felt patch with a silver eagle and two gold chevrons, indicating a second-class petty officer’s rank badge.

Colt looked at the photo for several minutes, unsure what was bothering him about the display. The ribbons looked right and in the correct order of precedence. Peter’s bio indicated he left the Navy as a Hospital Corpsman Second Class. And then it hit him: the two gold chevrons. In the Navy, chevrons were sewn in red until the Sailor had served at least twelve years. Peter’s bio said he served only eight years. Perhaps it was just a mistake. A family member or close friend would often assemble a shadowbox containing the service member’s awards for presentation at a retirement ceremony. Most wouldn’t know the difference between the red and gold chevrons when they purchased them from the navy uniform shop. But there was one other thing: Above the two gold chevrons and below the silver eagle were two crossed anchors, the insignia for a boatswain’s mate, instead of the caduceus of the hospital corps. That was a mistake no Sailor would make. Colt was beginning to think there was something off with Peter’s military service story, and he decided to dig deeper when he got the chance.

Later that afternoon, Colt’s schedule was suddenly free when a client canceled their meeting. So instead, he decided to spend time exploring the Department of Defense public website. He eventually found a DOD web page titled “Military Awards for Valor – Top 3.”

The page contained lists of those Sailors awarded the Medal of Honor, the Navy Cross, and the Silver Star. Peter Wright’s name was not included. Now Colt was getting concerned. Was it really possible that Peter had concocted his entire service history and had falsely claimed to be a war hero? How could a person do that? And what should he do about it?

Turning back to his computer, Colt typed into the search engine the words “stolen valor” and pressed the return key. The search engine returned a list of websites filled with stories and photos of men who had falsely claimed war service and awards not earned. Colt was shocked to learn that acts of stolen valor were common, and he became increasingly suspicious of Peter’s military record. Next, he searched the internet for the process of reporting someone suspected of false claims. He found many sites that discussed the Stolen Valor Act of 2013. The act made it a federal crime for a person to claim to have received specific medals to obtain money, property, or other tangible benefits. Colt discovered the current law was a new version of a previous statute ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. In the United States v. Alverez, the court determined Mr. Alverez’s arrest and prosecution for wearing unearned military medals violated his right to free speech. The new law, signed by Barack Obama in 2013, resolved the constitutional problem.

Colt wasn’t a lawyer, but he had plenty of friends who were, and he decided his next step would be to get some expert legal advice on the matter. So he sent a text to Jeremy Simpson, and the two men agreed to meet for breakfast the following day at the Budd Bay Café.

Jeremy Simpson and Colt Garrett had been close friends for years, long before Jeremy was first elected as a Thurston County Superior Court Judge. They met while volunteering as Boy Scout leaders. The friendship developed when Colt hired Jeremy’s firm to represent him in complex business transactions. Colt was the first to contribute to Jeremy’s campaign for his current office. His only complaint was with Jeremy’s election Colt had lost his trusted legal advisor. Good lawyers were hard to find.

“I may be losing a lawyer, but I’ll be gaining a friend in court!” Colt had joked after Jeremy’s election. Jeremy’s quick response, “Sorry, buddy. I’d just have to recuse myself,” made it clear Jeremy would be a forthright judge. Which made good sense because Judge Jeremy Simpson was a person of exceptionally high integrity. A trust baby with a future made secure by an inheritance from his family’s timber business, Jeremy decided to become a lawyer rather than simply live off the trust’s proceeds. He graduated from law school at the top of his class and then developed a reputation for having a keen mind and a strong work ethic. As a superior court judge, Jeremy thought he had reached the legal profession’s zenith. He used his trust fund to support local charities.

“I assume you didn’t buy my breakfast this morning just to talk about the weather, Colt. What’s up?”

Colt set his breakfast plate aside and walked the judge through his interview with Peter Wright and his suspicions about the man’s military record.

“And you need to make a recommendation to our club regarding his membership application?”

Jeremy was also a member of Budd Bay Rotary and suspected where the conversation was going.

“Right.” Colt motioned to Colleen, and she set a fresh carafe of coffee on the table. She smiled at the judge and then hurried off to greet a new customer.

“Legally, you don’t have to do anything. But there are other considerations.”

Colt glanced out the window at the fleet of sailboats moored in the marina. The growing wind was causing stainless steel halyards to hit aluminum masts, creating a musical sound that varied with the wind’s speed.

Turning back to the judge, he asked, “What considerations?”

Judge Simpson removed a pen from his suit pocket and began to write on a paper napkin.

“Well, if your summary of the stolen valor statute is accurate, Peter’s actions probably don’t meet the required element of tangible gain. Sure, he’s increasing his reputation in the community, which might help him attract clients and even attract contributions to his campaign. Still, both would be hard to prove in a court of law.”

“I understand that, Judge,” Colt acknowledged, “but what are the other considerations?”

Judge Simpson smiled. “This is where it gets more complicated, Colt. Your role in our club is to meet with potential members and then tell us what you think. We trust you to make the assessment on our behalf. If you have new information you believe would make a person unfit for membership, you need to let the club members know.”

After the judge left the café for the courthouse, Colt finished his coffee, paid the bill, and walked across the parking lot to his car. He unlocked and opened the door to his bright red BMW two-door coupe. The model 2002tii was more than fifty years old, and most people wouldn’t recognize the vehicle as a high-performance sports car. Which was just fine with Colt. As he drove the spirited car through Olympia’s side streets on the way to his office, he decided he needed to talk with the club’s president.

Puget Sound Medical Center’s reputation for providing exceptional care was primarily due to the abilities of its chief executive officer, Lisa Robertson. Lisa graduated from the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. Considered by most as the top public health school globally, Gillings’ graduates were offered management positions by every major hospital in the country. But Lisa wanted to come home to Olympia to work for PSMC.

Lisa’s father was a two-time cancer survivor. The skill and compassion of PSMC’s oncology professionals made his treatment and recovery possible. She credited the medical center with saving her father’s life and decided to pursue a career helping other patients through the terrible ordeal. Although she didn’t do well in science classes, Lisa enjoyed and excelled when working with people to get things done. A career in health care management was the perfect answer.

Lisa joined Budd Bay Rotary soon after moving back to Olympia. The hospital administrator called her into his office a few months after she started at PSMC.

“Lisa, I’d like you to join one of our local service clubs. They’re a great way to meet local business leaders, and you’d be representing the medical center to the community.”

At her desk, Lisa began researching service clubs in the area. She found all three organizations, Lions, Kiwanis, and Rotary, had clubs in Olympia. Her father had been a Rotarian, and she remembered as a child going with him to club functions; why not start there? Some of the Rotary clubs had a particular focus. It turned out one, Budd Bay Rotary, stressed support to first responders. Thinking about PSMC’s Level II trauma center, she decided to check out Budd Bay Rotary.

Ten years later, Lisa Robertson was the club’s president. She enjoyed the contrast her club responsibilities provided when compared to her duties as a medical center CEO.

“What can I do for you, Colt?” asked Lisa as she pointed to a chair at her office conference table.

“I know you’re busy, Lisa, but I need to bring you up to speed on a club issue.”

Colt had been Lisa’s sponsor when she first joined Budd Bay Rotary, and the two had become friends over the years.

The ever-efficient health care executive opened up an expensive brown leather padfolio and picked up a gold pen. “Okay, what’s up?”

Colt briefly summarized his meeting with Peter Wright and the information he had discovered about Peter’s military record. Then, he walked Lisa through the stolen valor law and shared what Judge Simpson had said about his obligation to the club.

Lisa finished making notes on the padfolio and then looked up at Colt.

“I’m not sure I agree with Judge Simpson,” Lisa began. “Putting the legal issue aside, I see this as a privacy concern. Our club isn’t a business, and you’re not screening a prospective employee. When I recommended that Peter join our club, I thought it would be good to have a real estate broker in our group. If he’s elected in November, we’d be the only club in Olympia to have a state representative as a member.” Besides, thought Lisa at the time, it wouldn’t hurt to have a friend on the House Healthcare and Wellness Committee.

“This is a private club, Colt. Suppose you think Peter will be a good member and contribute to Budd Bay Rotary. In that case, you should make that recommendation and not include your suspicions about his Navy service.”

Colt drove the BMW back to his office to get ready for afternoon meetings. He also needed to spend some time thinking about what to do about Peter Wright because he was scheduled to meet with Peter the next day.

In a refurbished brick building, Peter Wright’s real estate office was on Boston Street and 3rd Avenue. Colt stood in the reception area when a young man stated, “You must be Mister Garrett. I’m Scott. Can I take your coat?”

Colt removed his drenched overcoat and handed it and his still-dripping umbrella to the receptionist. While Scott hung his wet things, Colt glanced around the room to see stacks of campaign signs leaning against the office walls.

“Right this way, sir.”

Colt followed the young receptionist down a hallway and into a large corner office.

“Colt! Nice to see you again. Have a seat!”

His eyes were drawn to the oak-framed shadowbox on the wall behind Peter Wright’s desk as Colt Garrett opened a manila folder and placed it on Peter’s desk.

“I think we’re ready to go forward with your membership application. I just need you to sign a form, and I’ll forward your application with my recommendation for acceptance.”

Peter broadly smiled. “That’s great news. Colt. Any problem with me including my club membership on my website and campaign materials?”

Peter noticed that Colt was staring at his military awards on the wall behind him.

“I’m pretty proud of my service. I got most of those ribbons just for being somewhere, but I’m really proud of the Navy Cross and the Silver Stars. They’re pretty rare awards.”

“That’s what I’ve heard, Peter. Can you tell me how you earned them?”

Peter stood up from his chair and walked over to the award display.

“This first Silver Star was for saving the life of a Marine corporal when we were at an outpost near a small Iraqi village. The platoon received heavy fire, and the corporal was hit while trying to get back to our lines. I crawled out to get him and then dragged him back to cover. He was hurt pretty bad, but I patched him up and got him flown out.”

“What about the Cross and the other Silver Star?” asked Colt.

Peter stepped back to his desk and sat down.

“That was during the Second Battle of Fallujah in 2004. My platoon was clearing buildings on a back street when one of my guys got hit by an IED. I went to see how I could help him when some insurgents opened up on us from the cover of a stone wall. Three other Marines were hit, and then Captain Gaines was killed. After that, something just clicked in my head. I grabbed the captain’s M4 carbine and charged the wall, emptying the 30-round clip. I don’t remember much after that, except for the choppers landing and an Army unit reinforcing us. My squad leader wrote me up for a Silver Star that was later upgraded to a Navy Cross by the regiment. I rarely talk about this. Too many bad memories.”

“That’s impressive, Peter. Heroic even.”

Peter Wright beamed. “Some may say that, but not me. I was just a corpsman taking care of my Marines.”

Peter watched anger grow on Colt’s face and then watched with concern as he leaned forward.

“Peter, can you tell me why your award display has a boatswain’s mate insignia instead of a corpsman’s? And why the badge has gold chevrons instead of red? And why you display a second Silver Star if it was upgraded to a Navy Cross? What’s going on, Peter?”

Watching the color drain from Peter’s face, Colt continued.

“Or why the DOD website doesn’t list your Navy Cross or Silver Stars? This is wrong, Peter, what you’ve done.”

Peter Wright stood up, walked across his office, and closed the door. He crossed his arms and said in a quiet voice, “What are you going to do?”

Colt Garrett stood up and faced Peter.

“Me? I’m not going to do anything. I’m just here to see if you still want to move forward with joining our club. And then I’ll add my recommendation.”

Peter Wright thought for a moment, and then a thin smile formed on his face.

“You know, with all the new business here and the campaign, I don’t think I have time to join a service club. So, let’s put it on hold, and perhaps I’ll join later.”

Colt crossed the floor and opened the office door.

He turned back to look at Peter. “I thought you might say that,” and Colt Garrett briskly walked out the door.

The Budd Bay Café’s large banquet room now held ten fully decorated Christmas trees, ready to be auctioned to the highest bidder. Budd Bay Rotary Club held the annual event to raise money for a new First Responders’ lounge to be built at the hospital. The room would provide police, fire, and EMC responders a place to relax away from patients and staff. The Rotary Club members gathered before the auction to prepare for guests to arrive and have a drink to celebrate the holiday season. Club president Lisa Robertson rechecked the auction guest list and then joined Judge Simpson and Colt Garrett at the bar.

“Good evening, gentlemen! You two seem to be enjoying the evening already. How about pouring your president a glass of wine?”

Colt filled a wine glass and handed it to Lisa, and then refilled the Judge’s glass.

“Did you see that Peter Wright resigned his legislative seat?” asked the judge. “That letter to the editor by his opponent alleging a false military record must have been accurate.”

Lisa Robertson shook her head. “Oh my god! I know! It’s hard to believe. I mean, I didn’t really know him very well. But he didn’t seem like someone who would do that. I hope you both know I never would have suggested that he join our club if I had any idea! We’re lucky he decided to postpone joining. Oh, there’s Sarah. I need to talk with her!”

She looked at Colt, finished her glass of wine, and walked over to greet some other club members. Judge Simpson leaned back on the bar and looked at his wine glass.

“Yep,” commented the judge, “we sure are lucky Peter didn’t join the club. Colt, old buddy, I don’t suppose you have any idea what changed his mind?”

Colt Garrett refilled his friend’s wine glass. “Merry Christmas, Judge.”

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