Heroes Never Call Themselves Heroes

[ Posted Tuesday, November 16th, 2010 – 18:23 UTC ]

For the first time since the Vietnam War, a Medal of Honor has been awarded to a living serviceman. The Medal of Honor is the highest military award America bestows, and not very many of them are handed out, so this is indeed news. There have been other Medal of Honor recipients since Vietnam, but all of them have been awarded posthumously -- a telling statement on the type of bravery it takes to earn this medal. And, inevitably, the word "hero" is used to describe the recipient.

But I've noticed something profoundly basic over the years -- heroes never call themselves heroes. Or, at least, not the ones I've ever seen or heard of. I really don't know why this is, maybe it is subjective on my part. Maybe I'm only noticing the ones who reject the label. But Army Staff Sergeant Sal Giunta, today's Medal of Honor recipient, seems to conform to this perception -- he really gets almost insulted that he's getting an award when other people around him aren't. Giunta voices this feeling in a stunning video which was shot by an embedded reporter.

The basic question of who, exactly, is a "hero" has always kind of interested me in a philosophical way. At times, the word gets bandied about in situations I would say just don't qualify (a "sports hero," for instance). But when we are at war, this sort of broadening of the scope of the term seems to shrink back considerably, so as not to cheapen the word when we have soldiers in the field.

Heroism isn't limited just to the military world, of course. Certain professions lend themselves to heroism (and even heroics) all the time -- firefighters, police, the Coast Guard and other rescue personnel, ambulance crews, and doctors all have their share of heroes in their ranks. But sometimes being a hero just means being in the right place at the right time, and doing what seems obvious. At least, that's what most heroes have to say about it after the fact. "I was walking down the street and saw a burning building, so of course I ran into it and saved that little girl -- who wouldn't?" What this ignores, however, is the crowd of people who were standing around and had equal opportunity to save her, but didn't. Most ordinary people freeze in panic situations. Heroes, for the most part, do not -- they act. They act decisively and swiftly, while everyone else is standing around waiting for someone to tell them what to do.

President Ronald Reagan began a tradition among presidents in 1982, by breaking from his State Of The Union speech to Congress to point out a man who was clearly a hero, just so America would stop for a moment and recognize him. One week earlier, an airplane had taken off in heavy snow from National Airport and promptly crashed into Washington's 14th Street Bridge across the Potomac River. The plane sank quickly in the icy waters, and only six passengers made it out of the plane alive.

Two men who had witnessed the crash jumped in to do what they could. The first couldn't make it to the scene of the accident, and was hauled back out. The second, Lenny Skutnik, did make it out to the passengers and aided a woman to safety. One of the surviving passengers, Arland Williams Jr., was an even bigger hero, as a helicopter successfully dropped him a line, but he passed it to others rather than save himself -- twice. The water was so cold, he had succumbed to it by the time they went back for a third try.

Because the accident was a local tragedy (other than the five survivors and Williams, everyone else on board the plane perished in the crash itself, as well as several motorists on the bridge), Washington was in shock as a result. The plane crash even overshadowed another local tragedy which happened on the same day -- the first fatal accident ever on the Metro subway system. So it was obviously on the speechwriters' minds that week in January.

Reagan honored Skutnik by name, and pointed him out in the audience for the cameras. This is now standard fare in State Of The Union speeches, after Reagan started the tradition with Skutnik.

I believe that everyone has the capacity for being a hero. Not to wade into psychology (or even theology), but I think that everyone has within them the possibility of being in a situation, looking around and realizing that nobody else is going to act, and then leaping into the flames or the icy waters or into enemy fire, heroically. Few of us are ever tested, however, on this scale. It's not every day that a plane crashes into a bridge right in front of your eyes, in other words.

But I've never seen a hero after the heroics are done try to claim any sort of credit. And I really don't believe it is false modesty. Surely there must have been heroes who were braggarts or glory-hogs before their heroism who have reveled in the accolades afterwards, but as I said (purely subjectively), I've never seen it myself. Maybe it just isn't a good story for the media to cover, that might contribute to my perception, in a way.

But while few of us are ever faced with a burning building or a plane crash, there are some folks who face enemy fire on a daily basis. The military has a whole system set up to reward bravery and selflessness, and at the peak of this system of recognizing outstanding acts of bravery and heroism stands the Medal of Honor. But, as noted, it is actually rare that anyone who wins this award doesn't die while earning it. So it is rare for us to actually hear them speak about the experience.

In keeping with Army Staff Sergeant Sal Giunta's opinion about his own worthiness for the award, I decided today not to sing his praises. He's already had enough of that, and he has largely rejected it. As far as he's concerned, if what he did merits him this honor, then all the people he works with should also be getting one, because he doesn't see what he did as out of the ordinary for his job description.

And that, to me, qualifies him as a true hero. Because real heroes almost always reject the label "hero." But just being in the right place at the right time isn't enough, no matter how depreciatingly these heroes speak. You also have to act. Not many of us ever have the chance to find out whether we would act, or whether we'd be with the crowd standing around wondering what to do. Giunta did, and he did what he needed to. Which, whether he likes it or not, makes him a hero in my book.


-- Chris Weigant

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


6 Comments on “Heroes Never Call Themselves Heroes”

  1. [1] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    He wears that medal for his comrades and not himself. That is indeed the mark of the selfless warrior.

    But this is also the end of Giunta's exciting career; it sinly won't do for him to get killed. Medal of Honor winner Franklin D. Miller actually went AWOL from his unit to remain in the fight after being decorated by Nixon. Unit command wouldn't put him in the field after that, so he absconded with some pals from a Special Operations Group (SOG). You may also remember, Chris, that the crew of the Memphis Belle were brought home after completing 25 missions. Richard Bong was awarded the Medal of Honor after downing 40 Japanese planes, but died testing a first-generation jet fighter at almost the same moment Hiroshima was atom-bombed.

    Giunta can look forward to desk jobs and training positions from now on. Glory days end with that medal.

  2. [2] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    "simply" -- Gosh but we need an editor for comments, Chris!

  3. [3] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Very nice piece, Chris.

    I really liked how President Obama went "off script" today just to say that he really likes this guy.

    All Iowans and all Americans can be very justly proud of army Staff Sergeant Giunta.

  4. [4] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Osborne -

    You may be on to something with your first sentence. Maybe the quality of "selflessness" must be present in a person in order for them to ever become a hero in the first place. Maybe a "selfish hero" is a true oxymoron. Hmmm, now you've made me think...

    As for the rest of your comment, hey, sometimes Hollywood makes a movie about you when you get home. But even Sergeant York initially didn't want his movie made, from what I understand.



  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:

    Excellent commentary, CW.. Truly excellent...


  6. [6] 
    Michale wrote:

    "simply" -- Gosh but we need an editor for comments, Chris!

    Who woulda thunked it!! OInk and I actually agree on something!!! :D


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