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Your hero

March 3, 2009

Heroes

When I was about twelve years old, I thought I wanted to be a professional basketball player. At the time, the New York Nets’ star player was Julius Erving, better known as Dr. J. For those of you too young to remember, Dr. J was the precursor to Michael Jordan and was known for his acrobatic play with mid-air spins and whirls punctuated by powerful slam dunks. He was my hero and I aspired to be just like him, spending countless hours practicing in my driveway, trying to perfect my game. One day my parents surprised me with the news that we were going to take a trip to San Antonio to watch Dr. J and the New York Nets play the San Antonio Spurs. I was so excited I could barely sleep. I was going to see my hero—Dr. J.

We stayed at a hotel that was walking distance from the arena, and on the night of the game my parents and I got on the elevator, pushed the button for the lobby. The elevator began its descent. We were making small talk when the elevator stopped, the door opened, and to my utter amazement, onto the elevator walked Dr. J followed by two of his lesser-known teammates. These giants towered over me, and I distinctly remember thinking, “I’m surrounded by heroes.”  It was an exhilarating moment.

We actually walked to the arena with them and Dr. J offered me some advice about working hard and not trying to imitate someone else’s style. The entire walk to the arena I kept repeating to myself, “I’m surrounded by heroes.”

In the end, genetics and a general lack of talent conspired against me and I eventually gave up my dream of becoming a professional basketball player—but I can still remember the excitement of that moment. When I related the story to my best friend, his father told me, “It’s a lucky boy that gets to meet his heroes.”

As I grew older, my definition of hero changed as I came to realize that the ability to jump from the foul line and dunk a basketball is not heroic—it is merely an example of extreme talent and athleticism. Being elected to public office is not heroic. Hitting a three iron from the rough to within inches of the cup, being the fastest swimmer on the planet, or returning an intercepted pass 100 yards for a touchdown during the Super Bowl—these things are exciting, glamorous, sometimes awe-inspiring, but they are not heroic. True heroism requires service to others, which is the missing element in all of these endeavors. Service to others, captured in our Air Force Core Values in the phrase “Service Before Self,” is central to the concept of heroism.   

As my definition of heroism changed, my heroes changed also. They were no longer sports figures on trading cards stored in a shoe box under my bed. I began to look to men like Theodore Roosevelt for inspiration. The stories of Dwight D. Eisenhower and George Patton motivated me as I read of their decisive leadership during World War II.

At the age of twenty-five when I became interested in joining the Air Force I began reading about Paul Tibbets, who piloted the Enola Gay, of Colonel Doolittle and his Tokyo Raiders. I read about Colonel Robbie Risner and Captain Lance Sijan, who in captivity in Vietnam endured unspeakable torture and met it head-on with unbreakable courage.

And then I joined the Louisiana Air National Guard. I joined the Guard and I need not look to the pages of history to find heroes. I need not travel back with Teddy Roosevelt to San Juan Hill. I need not walk the beaches of Normandy, or travel to the deserts of Iraq, or the mountains of Afghanistan. I need not read about Lance Sijan, or Colonel Risner, or Jimmy Doolittle, or Paul Tibbets to find heroes. Because on this day, in this place, I find myself once again surrounded by heroes.

  In order to find heroes now I simply go to work. I go to work and see men like Sergeant Brian Welch, who jumped into the raging surf in Florida to save a drowning girl. As a testament to the danger he was in, you should know that another would-be rescuer nearly drowned in the attempt. I see men like Phil Allday and Charles Hancock who risked their own lives to save another, within a half mile of where we now stand. Once again, I’m surrounded by heroes.

 I see men like Lt Col Jeff Samuel, who has flown 106 combat missions, more than any other pilot in the Wing. One of the highlights of my career was flying his 100th combat mission with him over the skies of Iraq.

I see Rod Searls who set up the Toys for Tots program at our Wing and has worked selflessly with other volunteers to ensure the success of this program. I see the faces of those who have given up weekends building houses for Habitat for Humanity.

I see those who have ensured the continued success of our Fighter Pilot for a Day program—men and women who have given their time to ensure that a sick child is able to live today a dream that he might not be alive to fulfill tomorrow.

I see Sergeant John Childs from my tenure as Commander of the Civil Engineering Squadron. I needed a First Sergeant. John volunteered.  When told that if he took the job he would lose his $15,000 re-enlistment bonus, he took the job anyway saying “You need a First Sergeant more than I need the money.”

I see the heroes of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, who in the midst of mind-numbing fatigue fought to save the citizens of Louisiana and struggled to restore order to a city decimated by the ferocity of Mother Nature.

I see the heroes of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, who patrolled shelters, drove busses, handed out food and water to citizens in need; heroes who were critical to the safe evacuation of 2 million of our citizens prior to landfall.

I see Major Jim Worley and Captain Lance Bowlin, who on a scorching ramp at Lakefront Airport worked continuously for over 60 hours in an epic race against time to evacuate by air over 200 hospital patients from the local area. I’m surrounded by heroes.

I see the aircraft maintainers that scrambled to ready my jet for launch on 9/11. I see those who deployed to Turkey in the months following the destruction of the twin towers.

I see those who have volunteered to travel to combat zones around the globe to participate in the Global War on Terror. I see Sasha Cola and Rasa Smith, among our newest heroes recently back from Iraq. They also happen to be the Louisiana Air National Guard’s 2008 selections for Airman and NCO of the Year. I see Master Sergeant Tony Wigglesworth, our selection as First Sergeant of the Year.  

 I see Colonel Charlie “Groucho” Chappuis who just got back from his tour as the Hospital Commander in Baghdad. As a successful surgeon, he loses more money than I care to think about every time he leaves his private practice. I’m proud to say I’m friends with this man who has deployed overseas three times in the last five years, where his skills as a surgeon saved lives every day. I am surrounded by heroes.

They come from every group and organization in the Wing. They have different job titles, different rank, different experience, and different talents. But they have one thing in common—they personify the concept of Service Before Self and they are heroes.

I will add to this list of heroes the families and friends of military members. Every spouse who keeps the children fed, the books read, and the prayers said; every spouse who keeps the bills paid, the homework done, and has ensured a house is a home is a hero. I know that whatever success I have enjoyed in my career has been accrued upon the shoulders of my wife and my children who are my heroes.

Every mother, like my own sitting here today—a hero in her own right in her recent battle with cancer—every mother who has prayed for the safe return of her child from a combat zone, every family member that has sent a care package, every friend that has penned a note of encouragement to a deployed comrade is a hero because they have given of themselves for the sake of another.

I’d like to quote from Ben Stein, who wrote the following in an article about his idea of a hero: “A real star, the kind who haunts my memory night and day, is the U.S. soldier in Baghdad who saw a little girl playing with a piece of unexploded ordnance on a street near where he was guarding a station. He pushed her aside and threw himself on it just as it exploded. He left a family devastated in California and a little girl alive in Baghdad.  “There are plenty of other heroes in our country...policemen and women who go off on patrol…and have no idea if they will return alive; orderlies and paramedics who bring in people who have been in terrible accidents and prepare them for surgery; teachers and nurses who throw their whole spirits into caring for autistic children; the kind men and women who work in hospices and cancer wards.”Now you have my idea of a real hero. Stein goes on to say, “I came to realize that a life lived to help others is the only one that matters. This is my highest and best use as a human.” Let me repeat “. . . a life lived to help others is the only one that matters.”We are lucky enough to be a part of a profession that by its very nature allows us to lead “a life lived to help others.”  It is at once a great responsibility—at  times demanding personal sacrifice, danger to ourselves, and heartache for our loved ones, and a tremendous blessing—because we reap the satisfaction of working for the greater good.

Some people go their entire lives and never know a single person that has sacrificed his own comfort or safety for the sake of our nation. The fact that you as a member of the military probably have many friends who have made such sacrifices is a testament to the quality of the people in the profession of arms. It is a generally unspoken, but nonetheless legitimate benefit of military life that we are immersed in a culture of selflessness. Being thus immersed, I find myself inspired. Being thus inspired, I then expect more of myself, and more of those I work with and around. It is a circle of selflessness that builds upon itself and makes us better people. It has been said that “sacrifice begets sacrifice”, and “honor begets honor,” and nowhere is that more true than in the company of military men and women.

My friend’s father was right—it is a lucky boy that gets to meet his heroes—and it’s a blessed man that gets to work with his.

Men and women of the 159th Fighter Wing, you truly are heroes. It is my sincere pledge to accomplish our mission. It is my sincere desire to earn your respect. It is my sincere honor to serve as your commander. May God bless you and our great nation.

   

 


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Archives
Patti's Writing News
September 17, 2007
An Irishwoman's Tale, Patti Lacy's first novel, will be published in the summer of 2008 by Kregel Publications. Unsettled Waters: A Story of Deception, is now complete! To read more...
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Setting an Example
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Ninety-six-year-old published for first time!
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A teacher's struggle to make a difference in the life of a student named Amber.
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February 21, 2007
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