Quick- name 5 heroes. Do you have 5? Good. Now cross off the names of any professional athlete, politician, statesman, rights activist, celebrity, or major religious figure. How many do you have left? Two? One?
Heroes do not have to be well known. They do not have to be famous. They do not even have to be extraordinary people all of the time. For some people, a hero is one person who did an extraordinary thing that had a great personal impact. It is strange and often saddening to me that the common conception of heroes is that they are supernatural in some way. “Heroes” lead exemplary lives filled with extraordinary deeds; they always make the right choice; and they have a noble goal or mission to fulfill. This concept of a hero is unfortunate because it is so exclusive. There are many heroes who are ordinary people, living among ordinary people. They may have had one moment, or a series of moments, that made them stand out, but they are otherwise unknown individuals. In many cases, their extraordinary deeds are taken for granted because they were done in the line of duty.
The men and women of our armed services see heroes made among them every day, but they do not expect compensation, or even recognition for their actions. The American public takes for granted the brave actions of U.S. service members, and seldom recognizes their extraordinary bravery, loyalty, and dedication to their country. Former Navy pilot Wayne Booker noted that “People in [the military] die every day,” and also spoke about the lack of realization that the American people have for the sacrifices made for them. He recalled “[Before I retired], there was a period of time when seven of my close friends were killed in aircraft incidents, but the focus of the media was on the cost of the aircraft, not the lives lost. There seems to be a general lack of awareness among the public that [the armed forces] allow us to live how we live” (Interview. Booker).
If you are looking for a book on inspirational stories of heroes, look no further. Peter Collier, along with Artisan Publishing Company, compiled an excellent book entitled Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty. Within the 244 pages of this book, there are nearly 140 stories from Medal of Honor winners from a number of wars and conflicts. There is John F. Baker, Jr., who, as a private first class in the army during Vietnam, single-handedly killed ten Vietcong, destroyed six machine gun bunkers, and saved eight fellow soldiers (Collier 8). Or Desmond T. Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist, who, although he could not bear arms, joined the Army’s medical corps. On Okinawa Island, in the spring of 1945, Doss tended to, evacuated, and rescued seventy-five American GIs single-handedly (Collier 64).
Every page of this book is filled with stories like these. Stories of selfless rescues or offensive charges into the face of danger to save the lives of other men are commonplace in this anthology of uncommon people. And this book is only a fraction of the stories of Medal of Honor winners. Over 3,400 people have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, and many of those were posthumous. Before coming to the Coast Guard Academy, I could not name any of these men, and I doubt that many people can. This does not diminish the magnitude of their actions, but rather highlights the ignorance our culture maintains with regard to military heroes.
In addition to those who were officially recognized for their actions, there are those who were awarded no medal, and given no official recognition, but were still heroes in the eyes of their comrades. Mr. Booker remembers two incidents from his time in the Navy. A young sailor jumped down two decks (between 20 and 25 feet) to fight a potentially disastrous fire on board his ship, and a Navy chief who ran out onto the burning flight deck during another fire. Amid fiery explosions, armed with nothing but a fire extinguisher, he was trying to save the pilots trapped in their planes (Interview. Booker). Although they received no reward and little recognition for their actions, both the sailor and the chief are truly heroes. The Medal of Honor winners, like the sailor and the chief, voluntarily risked their lives to protect their friends and their country. No one can deny that they are heroes, yet their names and actions are virtually unknown to the American public.
There is a saying in the Coast Guard: “When the weather’s getting bad, and everyone else is headed in, the Coast Guard is headed out.” When speaking of heroes, of people who risk their lives for the safety of others, the United States Coast Guard certainly cannot be omitted. The official Coast Guard website lists estimates that each day, the Coast Guard rescues 15 people, assists 114 people in distress, and conducts 82 search and rescue operations (USCG website). Plucked from stormy waters or a sinking vessel, there are no words to describe the relief and thankfulness those people must feel at seeing searchlights slice through the darkness, and seeing a helicopter or cutter come slowly into view, and knowing that they are safe because the Coast Guard is there.
Hurricane Katrina brought renewed recognition to the small service. With the efficiency and dedication that few organizations have, the Coast Guard made rescuing the residents and rehabilitating the city of New Orleans possible. Wikipedia.com cites the number of people rescued by the Coast Guard during the disaster relief effort at 32,000--the largest number rescued by any single service--but admits that the article is out of date. In Sitka, Alaska, the story of the Last Run will always be remembered. The fishing boat La Conte floundered in heavy seas, miles from the nearest port. The accompanying storm was so large that there were waves in excess of 100 feet, sustained winds of 94 mph, and gusts at 140 mph. At one point, the winds were so strong, they forced the helicopter backwards:
Then [the pilot] heard a sound very few airmen in an H-60 have ever heard – the sound of one force being overcome by a greater one, the sound of two General Electric T-700 1,900-shaft horsepower engines spooling down. It was an odd, agonizing drone…the cockpit lights dimmed. In the flickering light, everything seemed to move in slow motion: [the pilots] pulling power on the sticks, [the flight mechanic] slamming into the rear wall, the aircraft tilting until it seemed to stand on its tail…A swell was cresting less than twenty feet below (Lewan 244).
Coast Guard Air Station Sitka made two unsuccessful rescue attempts, sent out three helicopters and one reconnaissance aircraft, six pilots, three rescue swimmers, and five flight mechanics, and finally managed to locate and rescue the surviving men in the vast expanse of dark water that is the Bering Sea (Lewan). The Coast Guard remains the smallest of the United States armed forces. It is often left off of lists of the armed forces or military services. But the selfless and extraordinary deeds of the men and women in this service are certainly no less than heroic. To fill a position where it is your job to risk your life so that someone else may live- that is heroism.
Too often, people do not give the Coast Guard enough credit for the challenging jobs it takes on until they are in need of rescuing. These rescuers and defenders are heroes, plain and simple. But little recognition is given to Coast Guardsmen outside their own community because people expect them to be there in times of crisis - they take this small yet vital service for granted, along with the men and women who make it possible. But most of the people in the Coast Guard would probably agree with Mr. Booker’s affirmation that “This is a great country, and that makes it worth it. The people here…to live the way we do…that makes it worth it” (Interview. Booker). Unfortunately, there seems to be little time spent reflecting on the actions of people who give of themselves simply because they feel it is the right thing to do.
Memorial Day and Veterans Day are holidays designed for the express purpose of remembering the service that American soldiers have given. And each year on Memorial Day and Veterans Day, the nation remembers its veterans with ceremonies and parades. In a small town like the one where I grew up, the crowds lining the streets for these parades are usually sparse, and usually comprised of relatives or friends of those marching. Few people without a direct connection to the veterans make an effort to come out and show support. In contrast, the 4th of July finds these same streets packed with lawn chairs and cheering crowds.
The public celebrates the holiday that represents their freedom, but forgets those who fight to preserve it. Active duty or retired, young or old, tall and strong or old and bent, these citizens are the true unsung heroes of the United States, and they are almost entirely unrecognized for their valor. The American public takes for granted that U.S. service members will make whatever sacrifices necessary to preserve our great nation, but are sadly unwilling to give them the recognition they deserve. Meredith Tufts, a longtime resident of Manchester and former civil servant, effectively captured the sentiment when she wrote: “In the words of an old spiritual, "You can't wear the crown if you don't bear the cross." Veterans bear the cross of fighting for what is best in our society: the multitude of freedoms which, ironically, also allow those less idealistic and more selfish to simply exploit those freedoms to their own advantage. But they are also those who deserve the crown.”
About the author: Elizabeth Tufts is currently in her third year as a cadet at the United States Coast Guard Academy. Originally from Boston, Massachusetts, she studies Government and sails on the Women’s Varsity team while at the Academy. She enjoys reading fiction and creative writing, and loves to travel. Ms. Tufts will graduate in May of 2007 to become an Ensign in the Coast Guard.
Collier, Peter. Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty. New York: Artisan, 2003.
Lewan, Todd. The Last Run. New York: Harper Collins, 2004.
Booker, Wayne. Personal Interview. 1 May 2006.
Tufts, Meredith. Personal Interview. 27 April 2006.
United States Coast Guard official website: http://www.uscg.mil/overview/index.shtm