In January of 1982 an Air Florida Jet with 79 passengers and crew crashed into the 14th street bridge in Washington, DC. All but five people perished in the crash and its aftermath, including several commuters on the bridge itself.
Recall that there were many heroic efforts to save lives, but the most notable was Arland Williams, a 1957 graduate of the Citadel. He repeatedly passed up the opportunity to be rescued until he was drowned in the rapidly sinking wreckage. And they couldn’t identify him for months…
There are many heroes in this room right now, combat veterans. Each one would tell you that they are not heroes, but survivors, that the real heroes have gone to their great reward.
It is axiomatic that heroes are made, not born. And Hollywood does an ample job of marking certain heroism.
A little over ten years after Arland Williams’ unselfish acts there was an infamous raid in Mogadishu, Somalia, that claimed the lives of 19 US soldiers and over 1000 Somalis.
Not quite ten years later a movie was made of the raid and its chaos. A good one, very close to the book of the same name, Black Hawk Down.
Recall a scene in the movie. Tom Sizemore, kind of a round-faced bug-eyed guy, who usually plays a weird dude but he manages to do military, from a sergeant to a colonel really well, if memory serves me right, and in this flick he’s a colonel, ground infantry, responsible for the raid itself and the mission in general. His performance does ring true.
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At one point in the now pointless mission, a gunfight to survive, Colonel Tom Sizemore’s convoy is stopped, and the good guys are taking very heavy fire. One of the soldiers actually has an unexploded RPG round in his chest. Sizemore coolly directs the actions of his soldiers. He orders one of them to get behind the wheel of a truck.
The soldier looks at him in shock… “But colonel, I’m shot!”
Sizemore replies, “Everybody’s shot. Get in and Drive.”
So, the soldier snaps to and gets behind the wheel.
Yeah, Everybody’s shot. Get in and drive.
There is some small irony here. The movie Black Hawk Down was released a couple months after 9/11. Recall how 343 firefighters and over 60 cops died in New York alone… never knowing what hit them but doing their duty. Many many acts of heroism that fateful day.
Fast forward twenty years from that, this year. There is an image I can’t get through my head in the weeks that followed the Uvalde massacre. There was an unfortunate LEO who was part of the waiting-in-the-hall crew, who used a hand sanitizer, I guess reflexively, and washed his hands.
Am I the only one, or did anyone else avoid those hand squirt things for weeks?
We always laud the real self-sacrificing heroes. We all believe that if that moment came, we would act decisively, heedless of our safety. But the reality is that most of us will never have to make that split second decision. Perhaps we should be thankful for that.
But everyone here has great potential to be a hero. Maybe with a small h, with small acts of real kindness, and the Christmas season is begging for it.
Call an old friend, you know, the one you stopped speaking to because of some perceived slight. Or invite that shut-in to coffee or lunch, the person you’ve been avoiding because the conversation is sometimes awkward. Or a relative you haven’t kept in touch with because the gap in years has just been too long, you know. Or that dude who owes you money…
That one act of reaching out can be heroic in that person’s life. A small gesture on your part, a great day for them.
I mention the great battles of others, not to minimize our own struggles, but allow this analogy. If all of us could put our problems on a table at the same time and were told to take back the problem you want… most, if not all of us, would claw back our own.
Heroism does not have to be life sacrificing. It is always life affirming, though.
The first person you need to be a hero to is… yourself. We all have struggles and helping others alleviates our own.
Small acts… maybe our heroism is not long past, but in our future of many wonderful days.
And sometimes that means we must kick ourselves in the ass to get going. To do the right thing. Not wash our hands, but to keep them a little dirty.
Tonight, when you put your head on the pillow and you pray that your big problems get smaller and your small problems go away, you’ll wonder if your troubles are permanent and hope they will wash away in the night.
They won’t. But you are not alone.
Then we wake up in the morning and know it is time to get the job done, shoulder to the wheel, do the right thing, often the hard thing. And sometimes we want to say “Oh, why me?”
Stop that! We all have problems, right?
Everybody’s shot. Get in and Drive.
Postscript: These are closing comments I made at the VETLANTA quarterly summit at the Atlanta Historical Center on December 7, 2022. A tip of the hat to columnist Peggy Noonan, circa 2002.