When Army Ranger Sgt. First Class Leroy Petry received the Medal of Honor recently, it set me to thinking about heroes. You may be aware of the actions that caused him to lose his right hand but save his fellow-soldiers. As Fox News reporter Justin Fishel wrote, “Shot once in each leg and laying wounded behind a chicken coup (sic) in an insurgent compound, Petry saved the lives of two fellow Rangers when he sacrificed his own hand to throw away an enemy grenade that could have killed them all.”
So, I asked myself, what is heroism? Though probably not exhaustive, I came up with this list of characteristics of heroism.
Selflessness: This is one of the basic characteristics of a hero and drives most of the other characteristics. The hero is selfless to the point of personal sacrifice, cost, inconvenience and suffering. Heroes don’t stop to consider the personal cost of their actions, they just act. A hero thinks first of others in a crisis.
Awareness: The hero is not off in his or her own little world. They are aware of the world around them and its challenges and needs. They automatically take note of opportunities to serve and assist and do so without hesitation.
Perseverance and persistence: the hero does not give up until forced to do so. Only then does the hero quit. Heroes have to eventually ask, “Can I accomplish anything more in this situation?” They know that the time eventually comes when one must pray Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
Initiative: The hero does not wait for others or to be asked or forced to act. The hero sees the challenge/problem and responds with his own gumption. This describes Petry’s response perfectly. According to Karen Parrish, an American Forces Press Service reporter, he described his action this way, “I immediately knew it wasn’t one of ours, because we haven’t used ‘pineapple’ grenades in quite some time,” he said. “[My] immediate reaction was, get it out of here.”
Courage: This almost goes without saying. This is the impulse that drives initiative. Heroes do not hesitate to act in the face of danger, hazard or peril. Their response is reflexive. It is a “knee-jerk” reaction where guts overrule logic. They charge machinegun nests, they storm beaches, they run into burning buildings, they go back under fire to carry out wounded buddies and, of course, they deal with enemy grenades. Without hesitation they get involved in the troubles of others. They pick up wee hour phone calls to comfort and encourage. They stop to help. They shell out cash to questionable strangers. On and on we could go.
Integrity: True heroes will always choose the high road, the moral course, even in the face of temptation and opportunity to do otherwise. We are all sinners, and heroes are no different. But, faced with a crisis their inward righteousness prevails.
As you will notice, physical characteristics have nothing to do with heroism. One of my favorite authors is the late writer of western novels, Elmer Kelton. When asked why his characters were not the movie-star-leading-man type (John Wayne comes to mind), Kelton replied, “Those are seven feet tall and invincible. My characters are five-eight and nervous.” Well, I’m not quite that short, but “nervous” sure fits. I believe a realistic hero is an ordinary person behaving in an extraordinary way.
As I was composing this article, I came to realize that I am married to a hero. Every characteristic of heroism fits my beloved Brenda like a glove. She is all these things in spite of a compromised immune system and subsequent frequent illnesses. As I watch her frequent suffering, I have to wonder how I would conduct myself in similar circumstances. Her life, like all heroes, is a beacon and example in this often difficult and troubled landscape of life.