According to a story circulating on the internet, Jimmy Stewart, one of the best-known actors of his day, voluntarily enlisted in the U.S Army mere months after winning an Academy Award for best actor.
When asked why he wanted to leave his acting career to fly combat missions over Nazi Germany, he said, “This country’s conscience is bigger than all the studios in Hollywood put together, and the time will come when we’ll have to fight.”
Already an accomplished private pilot, Stewart became a U.S. Army Air Corps aviator and an officer. As one might imagine, the Army recognized his star power and used him in recruiting films, sent him to rallies and had him train younger pilots.
Stewart wanted to do more and asked to be deployed. In 1944, Capt. Stewart was sent to England, where he spent 18 months flying bombers over Germany.
He flew many combat missions, having assigned himself to as many as he could. However, the realities of war led to him being grounded for being “flak happy,” or what we call post-traumatic stress disorder today.
According to the online story, when he returned to the U.S. in August 1945, “Stewart was a changed man. He had lost so much weight that he looked sickly. He rarely slept, and when he did he had nightmares of planes exploding and men falling through the air screaming (in one mission alone his unit had lost 13 planes and 130 men, most of whom he knew personally).”
Stewart did not give up on his acting career. In 1946, he got the role of George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Making the movie turned out to be therapeutic for Stewart. In many of the scenes of George Bailey coming apart, other actors and crew members felt that Stewart was not acting, but was allowing his PTSD to be on display, captured on film for millions to see. In the end, he shared a vulnerable part of himself and created a classic movie that reminds us that we matter and that “Life doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful.”
It’s hard to miss the parallels between Stewart’s personal story and The Salt Lake Tribune’s Utahn of the Year, Maj. Brent Taylor. Taylor did not shy away from serving — his community, his nation or the world. He was on his fourth deployment when he was killed in Afghanistan last month. In his last Facebook post, he reminded his friends and followers to “remember that we have far more … that unites us than divides us.”
Taylor exemplified the notion of expending oneself in the service of others, of focusing on the bigger picture and living a life of meaning. “Service,” Taylor said, “is really what leadership is all about.” Both he and Jimmy Stewart showed us by their actions what it means to be a servant leader.
Even though Christmas Day is over for another year, this week is a great time to rewatch “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Its message is timeless — and timely. Watching through a new lens of knowing what was going on in Stewart’s life will make it even more meaningful. So thank you, Maj. Taylor, George Bailey and Clarence the Angel, for reminding us that we often cannot know how far-reaching the ripples of our lives can be.
Holly Richardson is sitting down with her family and watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” with gratitude for the many lives that have touched ours.