Hero. The word has been overused and overhyped, misused and attached to everything from athletes to celebrities to tofu (no kidding). But what is a hero, really? Heroes come in all shapes and sizes, but they all share a singular characteristic – they have acted, in the face of potentially grave consequences, for the good of others.
Heroes rarely seek the recognition that comes with their own selfless acts. They shuffle their feet, shrug their shoulders, and say, “The real heroes are still over there,” or, “I was just doing my job.” But we recognize them nonetheless because they embody the ideals that inspire us, and provide us a beacon of light toward which we can chart our own lives.
There are so many heroes in our nation’s history that it is difficult to know where to start. So I’ll defer to the Commander-in-Chief. During the State of the Union Address, President Bush introduced two men whose stories caught my attention, and caused me to reflect on the meaning of the word, “service.” They shared something more than an honored spot in the Capitol’s balcony for the speech. They shared that unspoken bond that permeates the soul of anyone who has worn a uniform.
First, the President introduced Tommy Rieman, who, “…was a teenager pumping gas in Independence, Kentucky, when he enlisted in the United States Army. In December 2003, he was on a reconnaissance mission in Iraq when his team came under heavy enemy fire. From his Humvee, Sergeant Rieman returned fire. He used his body as a shield to protect his gunner. He was shot in the chest and arm, and received shrapnel wounds to his legs, yet he refused medical attention and stayed in the fight. He helped to repel a second attack, firing grenades at the enemy’s position. For his exceptional courage, Sergeant Rieman was awarded the Silver Star. And like so many other Americans who have volunteered to defend us, he has earned the respect and the gratitude of our whole country.” Amen.
The President also introduced Wesley Autry, whose story is no less selfless. “Three weeks ago, Wesley Autry was waiting at a Harlem subway station with his two little girls, when he saw a man fall into the path of a train. With seconds to act, Wesley jumped onto the tracks, pulled the man into the space between the rails, and held him as the train passed right above their heads. He insists he is not a hero. He says: ‘We got guys and girls overseas dying for us to have our freedoms. We have got to show each other some love.’ There is something wonderful about a country that produces a brave and humble man like Wesley Autry.”
Something the President didn’t say: Wesley Autry is a Navy veteran.
These two men share the satisfaction of knowing what “service” really means, because they have lived it. They know what sacrifice really is, and what consequences the sacrifice might bring. But they sacrifice nonetheless. They are heroes, and we salute them as our heroes of the week.