A few years ago I was asked to be one of the judges in the American Legion’s Essay Writing Contest that rewards the area’s best and brightest students with a generous scholarship, one of the many great things this wonderful organization does.
The essay question was simple. Does America still have heroes?
And these were High School Students who wrote the essay and then recorded it for the judges to listen to the student read their work. And we “graded” each essay for specific items and tallied the scores.
Several of the essays were built around the idea that anyone who was in the military, the police or fire department is automatically a hero. Being a Navy Veteran, I have a problem with that premise. I served, sure. Just like millions of others. I did my duty, I obeyed orders.
But I am n0 hero just because I joined the Service. That is ridiculous.
Let’s look at the definition of hero.
- a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.
- a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal: He was a local hero when he saved the drowning child.
There are a couple more definitions that are not applicable (unless you really like sub sandwiches – aka heroes).
But I didn’t distinguish myself with courage among my fellow Sailors. I didn’t jump on a grenade or pull wounded fighters from the line of fire. So I reject the notion that I am a hero because I served. And as I pondered this question during and for a long time after the essay contest, the only conclusion I can come to is a hero, to me, must perform some action. It is not a passive activity that makes you a hero. Action is required. And specific action.
Simply serving in the military does not make someone a hero.
So when Donald Trump made his statement that is driving the media and the rest of the Republican field crazy that John McCain is not a hero because he was captured, I have to agree. Being captured is a passive act. There is nothing distinguished, no courageous act was performed, no brave deed and certainty an imprisoned soldier is no role model.
So why do people call John McCain a war hero? I can find nothing he did above and beyond following orders. He was shot down, wounded and spent over 5 years in captivity. Now he deserves respect for what he endured. He was in harms way dropping bombs just like the rest of his squadron. Were the ones that made it back to the ship heroes for that mission? I have never heard a name other than McCain out of that group.
Did he place a bomb in a strategic place that saved some lives? Not that I know of. He just flew a mission like the rest of the squadron and didn’t make it back.
And are wounded Soldiers, Sailors and Marines automatically heroes by virtue of being shot or having an IED explode near them? I would have to say they did nothing heroic to earn the title hero. They are owed a tremendous debt of gratitude and the best medical care available for their sacrifice. And they deserve the honor and respect of everyone in the country. But does being shot make you a hero? Again, I think not.
Even those making the ultimate sacrifice are not heroes absent any heroic deed.
And I don’t mean this as a slap at my frllow Veterans who server, were wounded or who gave all they had to give in service of this country.
But to throw the term hero around so liberally is to diminish those who actually perform heroic deeds. The cop that crawls to pull a child out of the line of fire at an active shooting. The fireman that runs in a burning building to save someone. The Marine that jumps on a grenade to save his fellow Marines. These are heroes. These are the people deserving of our respect and deserving of the title hero. They performed a heroic action.
Would anyone call John Kerry a war hero? He received several Purple Hearts. I certainly wouldn’t. And like McCain, his actions after the war cancelled out any honor that might have been due him.
Judging that essay contest had me do a lot of thinking about who is and who is not a hero. Who deserves the title and who does not.
In this “everybody gets a trophy” country, we are far too free with ultimate accolades which makes the people who do truly heroic deeds seem, well, ordinary.
So I side with Donald Trump on this. But the Donald seems to have moved on to a bit of Lindsey Graham bashing. Now that may make Trump a hero in my book.
And for the folks that think McCain’s actions on the USS Forrestal (addressing one comment below) were heroic, McCain’s record has been groomed and altered according to those in the know. And the fire on the Forrestal story that claims McCain helped pulled someone out of a plane has never been substantiated. In fact, John McCain’s account of the tragedy is in direct conflict with the facts:
In considering the 1967 catastrophe, it is important to note that the official report concluded that no individual bore responsibility for the fire or its spread. There are a number of conflicting accounts of the Forrestal accident, but here is the story as based on the strongest sources. The fire started at 10:51 a.m. Saturday, July 29, 1967, as 30-year-old Lt. Cmdr. John McCain sat on the port side of the Forrestal in his A-4 Skyhawk going through preflight checks. To his right was Lt. Cmdr. Fred White, also in an A-4 Skyhawk attack aircraft. A Zuni rocket on another airplane accidentally fired and flew across the flight deck, passing through White’s auxiliary fuel tank and falling into the ocean. Fuel spilled onto the deck from White’s craft and ignited. McCain told his biographer, Robert Timberg, and repeats in his own book, “Faith of My Fathers,” that the rocket hit his own plane and knocked two bombs from it into the burning fuel as he scrambled out of his cockpit and raced to safety across the deck.1
There was, in fact, a single bomb—not two—that dropped to the deck. It exploded 90 seconds after the fire broke out, intensifying the blaze until it raged out of control. White and Thomas Ott, McCain’s parachute rigger, were among the first to be killed instantly or mortally injured, along with most of the firefighting crew. McCain’s plane captain, Robert Zwerlein, was one of those who suffered fatal wounds at this point.
A camera on the deck recorded images showing that the Zuni rocket struck White’s plane. The Navy report later attributed the dropped bomb to White’s plane, although the film footage does not seem to establish this definitively. However, McCain has said many times that the Zuni rocket caused the bomb (two bombs in McCain’s version) to fall from his own craft.
Some of those who were on the Forrestal and other persons familiar with the ordnance told me that because the rocket did not hit McCain’s craft, only actions by the pilot could have caused any bomb to fall from McCain’s Skyhawk. These sources—who spoke under the condition that they not be publicly identified—agree with each other that, if any bomb fell from the McCain airplane, it was because of actions that he took either in error or panic upon seeing the fire on the deck or in his hasty exit from the plane. Two switches in the cockpit of a Skyhawk need to be thrown to drop such a bomb, according to the sources.
Whatever the circumstances of the fire’s origins, McCain did not stay on deck to help fight the blaze as the men around him did. With the firefighting crew virtually wiped out, men untrained in fighting fires had to pick up the fire hoses, rescue the wounded or frantically throw bombs and even planes over the ship’s side to prevent further tragedy. McCain left them behind and went down to the hangar-bay level, where he briefly helped crew members heave some bombs overboard. After that, he went to the pilot’s ready room and watched the fire on a television monitor hooked to a camera trained on the deck.
McCain has never been asked to explain why he claims that the Zuni rocket struck his plane. If a bomb or bombs subsequently fell from McCain’s plane as he has said, it seems to strongly suggests pilot error, and if a bomb or bombs did not fall from his plane, it suggests rash disregard for important facts in his accounts of the accident.
They are called “War Stories” for a reason.
My boot camp Company Commander was a BT on the ship when the fire broke out. In the 70’s when I was in the Navy the disaster on the Forrestal was a mandatory study and the fire control procedures were drastically changed. Every one of us received fire training and were put through training fires. Watch this video below and you will see the pandemonium on the flight deck. What we were told was that a defective Simpson Meter that measures stray voltages was used to check the safety of the ordinance on the plane that saw it’s missile fire unmanned which started the reaction. My CC related the story to me and it was so completely out of control in seconds that no one had time to do much of anything. Most accounts of McCain said he ran.
Check out this video for a really good view of what happened and the timeline. At about 8 minutes they get to the fire.
And to those who knew him back then he was a troublemaker. Rumors persisted for years that McCain actually caused the fire, but this was discredited.
And even worse, Hanoi John McCain may have committed treason while a POW, but was pardoned.
Everything I know and have seen about John McCain says he is more Bowe Bergdahl than Audie Murphy.