What is a Hero?

Last week, we considered the heroic actions of the men of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in 1863, including Sgt. William Carney, who received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions at Battery Wagner. Lately, we’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the question…what is a hero?

Just this past July 18th, Lt. Col. Charles Kettles was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in Vietnam.  On May 15, 1967, when he learned that 8 men had been missed and left behind in an ambush, he turned his battered UH-1 helicopter around and went back for them (you can read more about Lt. Col. Kettles here).  Because of him, their names are not on the black granite wall of the Vietnam Memorial.  Because of him, they survived.  But he did not consider his actions special that day.  He thought it was just what war is.  He had just done what he had to do. He wasn’t trying to be a hero.

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Lt. Col. Kettles’ story reminds me of another young soldier who just did what he had to and thought nothing of it.  During the heaviest fighting of the 20th Maine’s defense of Little Round Top on July 2, 1863, Sgt. Andrew Tozier stood at the apex of the regiment, practically alone, holding the flagstaff in the crook of his elbow and firing a rifle he had picked up from a wounded comrade.  Col. Chamberlain saw him and admired the way he was “defending his sacred trust.”  Capt. Spear also saw him and noted that he was calmly chewing on a piece of cartridge paper.  Like Maj. Kettles, Sgt. Tozier was just doing what he could to take care of business.  He wasn’t thinking about being a hero.  After their respective wars ended, both men returned to quiet lives.

That is why I find it so fascinating to study history, to see how people react in the crucible—Henry V’s ragged, outnumbered army at Agincourt in 1415; officers and men in the hell of Pickett’s Charge; Sgt. Tozier on Little Round Top; Ida Straus telling her husband, “where you go, I go,” before going down with the Titanic, together; Jack Phillips, the Titanic’s wireless operator who remained at his post, sending the distress signal until the power finally went out; salvage divers to the wrecks at Pearl Harbor; fighter pilots over the Philippines, facing Japanese Zeroes; Maj. Kettles in Vietnam.  So many opportunities to turn and run, to give up or give in—and instead so many stories of valor because it was what was needed and the right thing to do.

What I find most fascinating about the Medal of Honor heroes I’ve read about is that they all say the real heroes are their buddies, not them.  For me, this humility makes them even more special.   Lt. Col. Kettles says the men under his command that day are the true heroes, because they had no choice but to follow his orders and they did.  Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of WWII, said the true heroes were the ones who didn’t make it home.

A couple years ago, I had the honor of meeting Gary Wetzel, a Vietnam veteran who also earned the Medal of Honor.  I remember him telling me that he didn’t deserve the Medal.  A quick search on Wikipedia tells me that after his helicopter was shot down on January 8, 1968, he was severely wounded and yet was able to take out an enemy position with his machine gun and then help wounded comrades, even as he bled profusely from multiple wounds, including a nearly-severed left arm.  I’m pretty sure the soldiers he defended and helped would agree that he deserved the Medal.  Meeting him was an indescribable honor for me, and a memory I will always cherish. Not one of these men did what they did with a medal in mind.  Whenever I read the story of a soldier who has been awarded the Medal of Honor, and it tells of their reactions, not once have I read that the fellow thought he was going to get the medal, not one has said he deserved it.  Each one thinks someone else should have gotten it instead.

We need these stories to remind us that heroes are not big-chested guys who fly around saving people; they’re ordinary folk who are just doing their jobs.  The firefighters at the World Trade Center did not enter the buildings thinking about being heroes.  No, they went in because it was the right thing to do, to help the injured, to find the trapped, to get everyone out—to serve their fellow man.  If you were to study every story of tragedy that grips us, I am willing to bet that in each one of them, the hero is thinking of someone else and not themselves—a fallen son, the buddies around him, the good of the nation and the families at home, the stranger in trouble.  Search for these stories, hunt for them, and take them to heart.  Heroes don’t try to be heroes—they’re just ordinary folk who do the right thing when it’s asked of them.

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