Heroes tend to pop to the surface during times of crisis. That's why you see so many during wartime, thank God. In a combat situation you find out what people are made of. When I think about heroes, I think of Leo Thorsness, a retired Air Force Colonel who received a Medal of Honor for acts of bravery in dangerous circumstances in North Vietnam--before he was captured by the North Vietnamese and spent six years as a prisoner of war, much of the time in solitary confinement, getting beaten every day.
You think to yourself, what would I do in that circumstance? When you talk to men who lived under those conditions, heroes like Colonel Bud Day and John McCain all say the same thing--they never worried about themselves, but only about whether, under torture, they would betray their country. They'll tell you that a human being can get used to anything, and that anyone would have done what they did under the circumstances.
I'm not sure they're right. I think you have to be a truly tough, single-minded, heroic person to undergo that kind of abuse and still bob to the top. I have complete respect for such men and those attributes, and I am glad I was never in a position to have to find those resources within myself.
Rick Sorenson fought at Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific during WWII, and his company came under heavy fire. His heavy machine gunner was killed, his light machine gunner was killed, basically the whole gun section had been knocked out...and then he heard someone yell, "Grenade!" He looked down to see the grenade at his feet and made an instantaneous choice: he threw himself on it.
I asked Rick what he was thinking at that moment, when he chose to risk his life to save others. He said, "I knew somebody had to do it, I guess that someone was me." To me, that's the very essence of a hero--an otherwise ordinary person rises to the occasion in a time of great peril, and does what needs to be done.
Combat is a pretty unnatural state of affairs, where crisis is a default mode. Even if the war is going well overall, at the local level it's always a nightmare. In the trenches and on the ground, the chaos doesn’t ebb. The truly amazing thing to me is that people do rise to the occasion in the midst of all that noise and peril and fear.
In my own combat experience (and I've had plenty of it), whenever there’s leadership vacuum, someone always comes to the fore and says, "Follow me." Sometimes it comes from a surprising quarter, and it's the quite, unassuming guy at the back who suddenly steps up and does what needs to be done.
The tricky thing about being under fire is that doing the right thing doesn't always feel like the right thing to do; knowing the difference is what makes a leader. During my first tour in Vietnam, for example, we were walking along a trail in unusually dense jungle, and we got ambushed. Now, you instinct is to drop and return fire, but you're trained to do the exact opposite, to attack into the ambush. But even with all our training, in that moment, the instinct to take cover was powerful.
Fortunately for us, a Vietnamese noncommissioned officer stepped up, led us into the teeth of the ambush, and we overwhelmed the enemy. We lost a lot of people in the process, this man included, but if we had followed our instincts, to lie down and try to return the fire, every last one of us would have been slaughtered. What he did took tremendous guts--not just to give his own life, as he did, but to lead others on a charge, directly into the face of enemy fire.
If you want to see terrible casualties, follow the guy who is saying, "I don’t want to lose anybody." You have to drive into the skid; you have to drop the nose of the plane when you’re losing altitude, even if it feels like you’re only speeding the rate at which you are heading into certain disaster; you have to attack into the ambush. Don’t get me wrong, in combat some loss is inevitable. But if you don’t do the right thing, you lose everything.
But not all heroism is forged in the crucible of war. Sometimes it isn’t so much about putting your life on the line as it is taking a stand, standing up for what you believe is right.
There's a Medal of Honor recipient whose story stands out in my mind, a man called Lou Millet. He was serving in the Army before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and he was absolutely incensed that the United States, the great beacon of freedom, refused to fight the Japanese and the Nazis. You have to remember that the war in Asia began in 1931, but the United States steadfastly refused to get involved. In a Fireside chat just a few weeks before Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt said that Asian boys would have to fight in Asia and European boys would have to fight in Europe, and that while America would be happy to send planes, trains, automobiles, and other materiel, we weren’t sending any of our boys to fight over there. The American position was, "It’s not our fight." Of course, it was demonstrated shortly afterward that that was a shortsighted stance to take.
For Lou Millet, even before Pearl Harbor, this attitude seemed outrageous. He thought, "This is the United States we're talking about, the cradle of modern freedom. We are supposed to be a principled country, and that means coming to the defense of people who are otherwise helpless. If anyone should be fighting this war, it’s us." So he went absent without leave from his American unit, and joined a Canadian unit that was fighting in Europe. When the United States finally joined the war, he went AWOL from his Canadian unit and rejoined his American one. His commander summarily found him guilty of desertion, but instead of sending him to jail, which he could very well have done, he gave him a $52 fine. That was a lot of money in those days for a working soldier, but it was a sum that the commander knew Millet could pay. Millet fought with his unit across Europe and subsequently was awarded the Medal of Honor for acts of heroism in the Korean War.
Now, one can argue with Millet's methods, but you have to respect his decision to take a stand, to say "no, that's not the right thing to do," at a time when it was easy to be comfortable, and comfortable to be easy. Every time somebody says, "Forget about them; that's not our fight" (and they still say it, by the way), I think of Lou Millet.
In wartime, there are plenty of opportunities for ordinary men and women to rise to the occasion, and they do, thank God. But heroes come from all walks of life. It's ordinary people who make extraordinary events. Anyone who is willing to put it all on the line, and the take a stand for what's right, is as much a hero in my book as a soldier who puts himself at bodily risk to defend his comrades and his country.