Stories of American Heroes - Brought to you from the "Home of Heroes" - Pueblo, Colorado
September 27, 2001
Many of our 'unsung heroes' turn out to be neither
By Burt Constable
Even those of us with a generous hero threshold must draw the line at a recent local TV news segment hailing New York shopkeepers near ground zero as the "real unsung heroes" of the World Trade Center tragedy.
The accompanying footage showed disgruntled shopkeeps, financially crippled by the lack of customers, dusting ashes off discount clothing and cheap electronics in their push to reopen and make money.
Heroic? Not exactly jumping on a live hand grenade in an attempt to save the squadron, is it?
While we certainly feel sorry for, and may even admire the work ethic of those merchants, their acclamation as "unsung heroes" seems wrong on both counts. The Sept. 11 horrors produced many heroes whose praises we should sing. But if cleaning soot-damaged merchandise becomes the new minimum requirement for "unsung hero" status, Americans are sandwiched by heroes. And, if you look at the way we media-types toss out the title, we are.
In the last year, Daily Herald stories have used the word "hero" to describe a high school girl whose better-than-expected 800-meter time helped her team finish second in a relay race; a boy who hit a home run; the third-best singles player on a tennis team; a cast member on TV's "Survivor"; a shortstop whose diving effort saved a run; a mom who baked cakes; country guitarist Chet Atkins; a gymnast who got hurt; a man shot after he chased fleeing would-be robbers; literacy tutors; a park district supporter; the Kentucky Derby winner; an incest victim; a hospice volunteer; people who shelled out $5 for an entry in a charity duck race; forgettable Cub Miguel Cairo; a village trustee who cast an unpopular vote; and, of course, the military men and women who happened to be on a spy plane captured earlier this year by China.
In many of those cases, the "heroes" simply are individuals who perform their jobs or athletic pursuits well. Others are basically nice people. A few are simply victims of unfortunate circumstances.
Every society needs heroes. We crave them. The ancients created wonderful, mythical heroes to meet that need. Americans look to sports and entertainment, and try to manufacture real-life heroes out of whatever scraps we have handy.
In 1987, when a toddler tumbled into a Texas well and got stuck underground, we hailed "Baby Jessica" as an American hero.
Of course, Michael Jordan, Sammy Sosa and a host of lesser athletes receive the hero designation any time they have productive workdays. The "heroes" who get their photographs on our mantels of public adoration often achieve that status under the mantle of fame.
"We confuse hero and celebrity," explains Doug Sterner, 51, a highly decorated veteran who served two tours in Vietnam. Calling athletes heroes bothers the Colorado man, who defines a hero as "a person doing something for another person at a personal sacrifice or cost to themselves."
The Medal of Honor recipients (never call them "winners") listed on Sterner's Web site (http://homeofheroes.com) give perspective to the word hero.
Only 839 military personnel have earned Medals of Honor since the beginning of World War II. The Carnegie Hero Fund Commission (www.carnegiehero.org), recognizing civilian acts of heroism in the United States and Canada, has named only 64 heroes this year.
The media and public sentiment are much more lenient.
"Today, everybody's a hero," Sterner says, pausing a moment before adding, "Well, maybe that's not bad."
He acknowledges the need for "everyday heroes," noting a boy who volunteers to mow the grass of an elderly neighbor is a hero "to that person, for a moment."
Role models, volunteers and such are good for society, he says.
Sterner's image of a hero is Audie Murphy standing alone atop a blazing tank, firing guns to keep the enemy at bay as he saves his cohorts during World War II.
"But if you haven't seen that, your concept of heroism may be smaller," he concedes.
Thankfully, we haven't had many chances to see that sort of heroism since Vietnam.
"Our definition of heroism may change in the coming years," Sterner warns, referring to the potentially looming battles with terrorists. "Maybe that bar will be raised again."
Perhaps, a heroic effort on the part of our leaders can keep that from happening.
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