For far too long, Americans tolerated the trashing of our heroes.
After the Vietnam War, anti-everything-American activists, with the aid of a compliant media, promoted the view that all things American are bad, that we are largely responsible for most of the ills in our troubled world. We consume too much of the world’s resources, we are too rich and self-centered, we don’t do enough to protect the poor and infirm, we are polluting the environment and must be dragged kicking and screaming to Kyoto treaty or global warming meetings, we do not teach our children the truth about the evils of our slave-owning founders, we are racist, and we promote and export our culture in an endless stream of vile films, music and videos.
At the same time, we worship at the altar of notoriety, fame and wealth, elevating the rich and famous to the level of great thinkers and leaders. Big-name entertainers and other popular public figures with limited education and training and even less experience or expertise issue pronouncements about what we must do to solve the world’s problems, which are dutifully repeated by the media, as if such people actually have real answers.
To me, one of the most discouraging aspects of the rampant denigration of America and Americans has been the trashing of our heroes. Vietnam brought contempt for the military, and subsequent years saw loss of respect for other traditional heroes, such as our founding fathers, even our police and firefighters. I will never be able to erase from my memory the image of firefighters being shot at while they were trying to save other people’s lives and property during the Los Angeles riots in 1992.
But 9/11 changed all of that. Our heroes are back, at least our servicemen and women. Police, firefighters and emergency medical workers appear to have been largely restored to their former positions of respect. I am personally gratified by this long-overdue change. There are many heroes and heroines among us, people who lead quiet lives with courage and dedication but who rarely receive the recognition they deserve.
The following are some of my personal heroes.
Our young military people: As a Korean War veteran, watching the news coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I have been struck by the youth of so many of our servicemen and women, their dedication and clarity of purpose, their sense of duty, and their willingness to shoulder responsibilities beyond their years. They are among the most admirable young people I have seen, and they deserve our thanks and support. They belie the negative perception of the armed forces that has been fed to us for many years.
The police, firefighters and emergency medical workers, who respond to our calls for help without regard to their own comfort and safety: We have taken them for granted, while at the same time progressively increasing the demands that are made of them and the complexity of their responsibilities, yet criticizing them for everything that goes wrong.
All too often, the media hype stories about their mistakes or transgressions, such as the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart scandal in 2001 and Rodney King’s beating by LAPD officers in 1991. But how often do we hear about their acts of heroism and selflessness?
Remember the robbery of the North Hollywood branch of Bank of America in 1997 — where the bandits wore body armor and were armed with automatic weapons? During the course of the firefight, the thieves sprayed more than 1,100 bullets at the police, while the officers, whose own weapons were seriously inadequate, fought back, firing more than 400 shots of their own and ultimately bringing the bad guys down. Their reward? A lawsuit by the mother of one of the robbers for allegedly letting him bleed to death while they tended to their own wounded.
We don’t often see such a dramatic demonstration of police action to protect the public, but talk to any deputy sheriff or police officer and you will learn that they accept their responsibility as an everyday fact of life, without self-congratulation or any sense of self-importance. They should be honored by all of us for doing their duty as well as they do — often at personal risk in the face of great odds.
Other situations — such as the 1992 riots in Los Angeles; 2005’s Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, where firefighters were shot at while trying to fight fires or rescue people; or the World Trade Center towers in 2001, where we saw them racing into burning buildings and up the floors of those heavily damaged high-rise structures — graphically illustrate the risks that these dedicated public servants willingly assume every day to protect the lives and property of others.
Having had the responsibility of running a hospital, I am also keenly aware of the risks our health-care workers and emergency response people assume on a regular basis. The difficult and unpleasant conditions under which they must frequently function are generally not well-recognized or appreciated. It is often a thankless and hazardous task, and they deserve our recognition and appreciation.
All of these people — law enforcement, firefighters and emergency health-care workers — are heroes and heroines to me. But there are many other everyday heroes and heroines among us. Two examples from my personal experience come to mind:
A relatively young woman friend (in her 50s) took on the task of caring for her husband who was suffering with dementia. Although they had been married just a short time when his condition was diagnosed, she organized her entire existence around looking after him — until she could no longer handle the physical and emotional demands without help. Her dedication and sense of responsibility went way beyond anything that could have reasonably been expected of her. Yet she quietly met the need without complaint or self-pity, shouldering the duties of being his caregiver that would discourage the most dedicated among us. To me, our friend is a true heroine.
An elderly lady my wife and I know whose husband had Parkinson’s disease completely focused her day-to-day existence around caring for him. She is a tiny woman and he was extremely tall — literally towering over her. Occasionally, we would see them in restaurants and at various events in the community, and watching this little woman somehow managing to help a very big man struggle to his feet and walk, and her concern about not being away from him for very long, was a true tribute to the love, dedication and sense of responsibility that is so often exhibited by many people. She is another heroine, whose courage was demonstrated largely beneath the radar of many of those around her.
Look around, and you’ll find heroes and heroines everywhere among the people you know and meet every day — at work, in schools your children attend, among the merchants and business people you patronize and work with — giving freely of their time and resources to help others. They’re ordinary people doing extraordinary things everywhere in America. Many of them are modern, unsung heroes and heroines.
We need true heroes and heroines, people who are willing to sacrifice for others, to set the example and lead the way for the rest of us. At long last, they have been returning to our society — in Iraq and Afghanistan.
— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who has lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog, Opinionfest.com.