12 April 2009


i've made it no secret in these writings that i believe the word "hero" to be over-used and abused. in my eyes, it takes more than simply wearing a military or civilian uniform. it even takes more than dying, since that so often happens by accident or chance. no, a hero is someone who intentionally overcomes fear in a dangerous situation, and places him/herself at risk to save others. here are two shining examples from the era of my own military service, the vietnam war.

(1) what follows is a narrative sent to my by my good friend ed in tucson, arizona. it has been in circulation on the web for a while, but is still vivid and powerful.

"you're an 19 year old kid. you're critically wounded, and dying in the jungle in the Ia Drang Valley (portrayed in the mel gibson movie "We Were Soldiers"), 14 November 1965, LZ X-ray, vietnam . your infantry unit is outnumbered 8 to1, and the enemy fire is so intense, from 100 or 200 yards away, that your own infantry commander has ordered the medevac helicopters to stop coming in. you're lying there, listening to the enemy machine guns, and you know you're not getting out. your family is half-way around the world, 12,000 miles away, and you'll never see them again. as the world starts to fade in and, you know this is the day. then, over the machine gun noise, you faintly hear that sound of a helicopter, and you look up to see an unarmed Huey, but it doesn't seem real, because no medevac markings are on it. Ed Freeman is coming for you. he's not medevac, so it's not his job, but he's flying his Huey down into the machine gun fire, after the medevacs were ordered not to come. he's coming anyway. he drops it in, and sits there in the machine gun fire, as they load 2 or 3 of you on board. then he flies you up and out through the gunfire, to the doctors and nurses. and he kept coming back.... 13 more times..... and took about 30 of you and your buddies out, who would never have gotten out. Medal of Honor recipient Ed Freeman, died in 2008 at the age of 80, in boise, idaho."

(2) as described in an earlier entry, the second pilot i consider to be a true hero is hugh thompson, jr. on 16 march 1968, thompson was on a reconaissance mission when he happened to overfly the My Lai massacre in progress. seeing the murder of several hundred south vietnamese civilian men, women and children by u.s. army soldiers, thompson repeatedly landed his chopper to interfere with the carnage. he and his crew not only put their own lives at risk, but thompson put his reputation and military career on the line as well by reporting the killings, both on the radio and in written reports. he was subsequently vilified by both military peers and members of congress during investigations of the incident, but he persistently remained true to his sense of ethics. of all the officers and GIs who participated in the massacre, only lt. william calley was ever tried and convicted of war crimes. the stonewalling and cover-up were complete. Soldier's Medal recipient Hugh Thompson passed away in 2006 at the age of 62, in alexandria, louisiana.

naturally, these examples do not detract from the heroism and professionalism of present day military and civilian pilots, whether in an overseas war zone or fighting fires here at home. i salute you all.


  1. A quibble-
    You contradict yourself in my opinion. Your words:
    "...a hero is someone who intentionally overcomes fear in a dangerous situation, and places him/herself at risk to save others."

    Anyone who, over the last few years, has gone to a recruiting station and raised their hand to serve in the military, meets that description, don't they?
    Therefore I'd submit those wearing the uniform of our Armed Services meet your definition of hero.
    Would you like to reconsider?

  2. i don't believe that i contradict myself. how is a recruiting station a dangerous situation? a small fraction of those in uniform are faced with actual danger. most are in support roles. so my definition stands.

  3. I admire men like messrs Thompson and Freeman. they are true heroes in the sence of the word...As a serving member of the British Army we all do a fantastic job but more than others ..No medal is big enough for messrs Thompson and Freeman.... from Sjt Patterson The Rifles ..Bold and Swift

  4. So let me get this straight...
    You don't think giving an oath "To support and defend", meaning you will be at the whims of military/political leaders as to what happens with your life and career puts you at possible risk of losing your life?
    I haven't looked at your detailed profile, so I don't know if you have had military service. Let me tell you, when you raise your hand and give that oath, you look at "Old Glory" differently from that point on!

    I was in the Hugh Thompson's unit after he left. (In fact, I flew some of the very same aircraft Hugh had flown.) I was shot at almost on a daily basis, yet chose to climb back into that Huey and go out the next day. Does that make me a hero? That's for others to decide.
    But to say you are not exposing yourself to extraordinary risk by entering a recruiting station and raising your right hand is to deny the obvious.
    And yes, it IS a contradiction.

  5. To Grahame Patterson -- Thank you for your response. I agree with your assessment, and salute you for your own sacrifice to the common good.

    To Greybeard -- I hope you will read this post with fresh eyes. If you do, you will note that I indeed did serve in the military, specifically in Vietnam, 1968-69, with an artillery unit.

    You and I will have to agree to disagree on the relevance of the American flag to our sacrifices in the military. The flag is a piece of cloth, a symbol (to me) of the freedoms and rights guaranteed to us in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution -- freedoms and rights which this country has been inconsistent in protecting, depending on your skin color, ethnicity and wealth. To others (like my father who served in WWII), the flag symbolizes different things -- patriotism, fighting the good fight against evil, my country right or wrong. I accept that. We all have the right to our beliefs.

    No, you are not exposing yourself to risk by simply being in a recruiting station and raising your hand to take the oath. You are exposing yourself to the POSSIBILITY of risk, depending on which MOS the military assigns you to. If you are sent to the infantry, then by all means, extraordinary risk. If you are trained to be a clerk typist, not so much. So what you see as a contradiction, I see as an ambiguity -- which life is full of. That's fine, we don't have to agree. I value your opinion, and respect your service.

    To reinforce that, let me say thank you to you -- I have tremendous admiration for all military pilots and crew, especially chopper pilots. Even when not in combat, flying a helicopter is both skill and art. Add being shot at (and shot down), and returning to do it all over again as you and many others did, takes a high level of devotion. I've talked to and read the memoirs of many flyers, and their devotion varied. For some, it was devotion to country. For others, it was devotion to their crew members and the troops being transported. For others, it was devotion to the ideal of performing at one's personal best, regardless of the situation. For others, all of the above.

    I think that even though on the surface, you and I may differ in the words we choose, beneath it all we'r not so far apart. I was mortared, rocketed, sniped at. Like you, I chose to do my job well every day, sometimes risking my life to save others while under attack. It was the right thing to do, regardless of fear or risk, and I would do it again.

    Thank you both for your feedback and your candor.