From a pop culture point of view, our perspective on heroes and bravery tends to be skewed toward the superficial. The news media fall all over themselves to celebrate the “heroism” of, for example, a superstar athlete who overcomes adversity or a Hollywood actress who comes out as gay; those names and faces are splashed across the news and they are lauded even by the President. Meanwhile, those in our own military whom we honor for sacrificing life and limb in service to others – the truest definition of heroism – remain largely unrecognized by the public. Since FrontPage is an outlet of the David Horowitz Freedom Center, and our soldiers are in no small measure responsible for that freedom, it seems appropriate to bring some attention here to a few real heroes who recently made the news.
It was announced Monday that the Medal of Honor will be bestowed upon former Staff Sergeant Ryan Pitts, 28, for his actions July 13, 2008 in the fierce battle of Wanat in Afghanistan. As the Army Times reports, just before sunrise, a volley of rocket-propelled grenades pounded his Observation Post [OP]. For 90 minutes, Pitts and his fellow paratroopers fought off more than 200 enemy fighters. His actions were described as “decisive” by the battalion commander at the time: “He prevented the enemy from overrunning the OP and thus saved lives and prevented the loss or capture of fallen and wounded paratroopers.”
“Even though he damn near got himself killed, he managed to keep his composure and keep fighting and do what he was supposed to do,” the commander said. “His weapon would go down and he’d get another one and continue to fight. He was throwing grenades at [the enemy] and throwing rocks at them to get them to jump out from behind cover.”
With a proper hero’s humility, Pitts takes no credit himself but honored his brothers-in-arms: “Valor was everywhere,” he said. “Everybody just did what they needed to do, and a lot of it was because of the relationships we had. We were very close.” He views the medal as a memorial to the nine soldiers who gave their lives at Wanat that day: “I try to think about the guys we lost and try to do my best to honor them and the gift they gave me. I hate the word ‘hero.’ But I feel very fortunate when I look at the guys I served with. They’re my heroes. It was the honor of my lifetime to serve with them.”
From that same battalion, former Sgt. Kyle White received the Medal of Honor last month for his bravery in November, 2007. Caught in an ambush in Afghanistan, says the Army Times, White repeatedly ran a “gauntlet of enemy fire to get to the wounded and fallen.” When the shooting stopped and night fell, White, only 20 at the time, tended to a wounded comrade, called in radio reports, directed security and guided in air support until the wounded and dead were evacuated. “I do not consider myself a hero,” he said prior to his White House ceremony, echoing the words of Sgt. Pitts. “To me, the real heroes are the ones I fought with that day.”
The late Sgt. Alwyn Cashe was awarded the Silver Star, the third-highest award for valor, in recognition for his heroic actions in Samarra, Iraq on Oct. 17, 2005, when his vehicle hit an IED. The wounded Cashe, his uniform burned away except for boots, body armor and helmet, crawled back into the wreckage again and again, pulling out all six of his comrades. All were evacuated back to the U.S. alive, although three later succumbed to their wounds – as did Cashe, from 2nd- and 3rd-degree burns over more than 70 percent of his body. He didn’t receive the Medal of Honor because the full details of his actions were unclear at the time, but there is a movement underway to upgrade him to that award. “I know not a lot of us survived,” said one survivor, “but maybe none of us would have survived if not for him.”
Countless other American warriors may be less decorated but nonetheless continue to give above and beyond the call of duty. Some don’t come home alive, like Staff Sgt. David Stewart, 34, Lance Cpl. Brandon Garabrandt, 19, and Lance Cpl. Adam Wolff, 25, three Marines who died last Friday in combat operations in Afghanistan. The ones who come home wounded tend to soldier on, if you’ll pardon the pun, without complaint, which makes the recent revelations of Veterans Administration neglect of wounded vets that much more shameful and unconscionable.
Occasionally our entertainment media throw a deserved spotlight on our military, such as with the outstanding movie Lone Survivor, based on Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell’s harrowing book of the same name, or the Super Bowl commercial from Budweiser this year which celebrated a soldier’s return home.
But more often than not we’re treated to displays in the culture like these: egomaniac rapper Kanye West has the nerve to compare his stage performances to the risks of military service; tone-deaf celebrity Gwyneth Paltrow calls internet attacks on her the “bloody, dehumanizing” equivalent of war; and earlier this year in a segment called “Heroes and Zeroes” on his titular show, MSNBC lightweight Ronan Farrow praised Lena Dunham, creator of HBO’s disgusting Girls, for her heroic nudity. You can’t degrade the meaning and significance of heroism much further than that.
In a perfect world, men like the ones I noted above would be household names like – or better yet, instead of – Kanye West or Gwyneth Paltrow. Not that our heroes would ever be comfortable with such recognition, because selfless service is part and parcel of a hero’s character. The least we can do is stop applying the word “hero” casually and reserve it for those who have earned it, sometimes with their lives.
(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 6/27/14)