The word hero is often misunderstood and poorly applied in today’s society. If you ask your typical American citizen who their hero is, they might say Tom Brady, Lebron James or Beyonce. The problem is that we have confused celebrity status with being heroic.
The word hero comes from the ancient Greeks and it sets forth only two requirements: courageous acts and a noble purpose.
On the 26th of February, 2007, the entertainment industry and news outlets were all aglow because the Oscar ceremony the previous night had two big winners: “The Departed” and “Little Miss Sunshine.” While these are fine movies, celebrity status pales when stacked up against real heroism. You see, there was another award ceremony that same day at Fort Wainwright in Alaska not covered by the national news. It’s my great honor to share this story with you.
That same day, Private First Class Steven Sanford was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, our Nation’s second highest award for heroism. Sanford was a riﬂeman in Company C, 2nd Battalion, First Infantry. His unit was based in northern Iraq and on the 19th of November, 2005, his platoon was patrolling the Al Sakarra neighborhood in Mosul when they got a desperate call for help from Iraqi Police.
The platoon, consisting of about 40 men and 4 Stryker vehicles, arrived on the scene and immediately began taking ﬁre from what turned out to be an Al Qaeda safe house. Sanford’s squad stayed back in reserve while the rest of the platoon assaulted the house. Casualties were numerous inside the house and Sanford’s squad was called forward to help.
While running across the road to get into the house, PFC Sanford was shot in the leg. He made it to a wall outside the house when a rocket-propelled grenade burst at his feet, showering both he and his team leader with shrapnel. The team leader was hurt more badly, so Sanford drug him across the street to the vehicles. He returned to the house to retrieve more casualties and helped more injured out. Then, one of the last men in the house who was directing troops from a doorway was shot in the neck. When Sanford rushed to give him aid and began CPR, he was shot twice in the back.
After being shot twice more in the legs, Sanford was able to return ﬁre and kill the terrorist who shot him. He resumed performing CPR on the wounded officer, while bearing ﬁve potentially fatal gunshot wounds and signiﬁcant lacerations from the grenade blast. He eventually passed out from a massive loss of blood and the wounded officer died. Sanford was evacuated to the combat hospital at Mosul airﬁeld, where incredible surgeons worked furiously to save his life. He actually expired twice that night in surgery but was revived and survived.
On the same day as the Oscar buzz, Marine Corps General Peter Pace, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, presided over a ceremony to award the Distinguished Service Cross for heroism to PFC Sanford, who was medically retired from the Army. As General Pace was pinning the medal on him, Sanford noticed that the General’s hands were shaking. He asked him what was wrong. General Pace replied that this was the ﬁrst time he had ever awarded anybody a DSC, and Sanford said, “Don’t worry, sir, this is the ﬁrst time I ever got one.”
Our second hero, a bit more well known, was a young lady born in the South in 1913. Rosa McCauley grew up under “Jim Crow” segregation laws and attended a school as a young girl that was twice burned to the ground by the Ku Klux Klan. In 1932, Rosa married Raymond Parks and like her husband, became active in the NAACP. She eventually acceded to the position of Secretary for Montgomery, Alabama’s NAACP Chapter.
Montgomery strictly enforced its segregation laws, and one of those laws concerned public transportation. The public bus system separated seating areas for white people in the front of the bus, black people in the back, and a section in the middle with open seating. If more white people boarded the bus than seats were available, the driver typically insisted that any black people sitting in the middle move to the back of the bus and stand so that a white person could sit down.
Mrs. Parks had a series of jobs in the 1940s and 50s, as a seamstress, a caretaker, and a secretary, all of which required her to ride on public transportation. For one short period, she worked on Maxwell Air Force Base, a federal installation where there were no segregation laws enforced, and her eyes were opened to what could be. One day in 1943, Parks boarded the bus and paid her fare, but the driver, James Blake, insisted that she get off the bus and re-enter it through the rear door, which was reserved for black people. When she got off the bus, he drove away, and she was determined never to ride on a bus driven by James Blake again.
Twelve years later, on December 1st, 1955, Parks boarded a bus and sat down in the middle section. She did not notice that the driver was James Blake. When more white people boarded than there were designated seats, Blake walked back to the middle section and told the four black people sitting there to get up and stand at the back of the bus. The other three complied, but Rosa Parks refused. She was arrested, and the NAACP organized a single-day boycott of the city’s busses. One of their key speakers was a little-known preacher from one of the Baptist Churches in Montgomery named Martin Luther King, Jr. The boycott grew and eventually lasted 381 days until the federal government declared the segregation policy unconstitutional. Once the policy was dropped, black citizens in Montgomery once again rode public transit and Rosa Parks was one of the ﬁrst to board—on a bus driven by James Blake.
Courageous acts and a noble purpose.
The root of the word courage is “couer,” which is French for “heart.” To act with courage is to act with a full heart. In that sense, to encourage someone is to give them heart, while to discourage them means to take away their heart. Regarding the purpose of one’s actions, there is no more noble cause than to serve others. So heroes act with a full heart and serve others.
Steven Sanford and Rosa Parks shared those attributes, and were heroes. Many of the lives that intersected with theirs and encouraged them in their service to the greater good also were heroes.
Our world desperately needs more heroes. If you are thinking that you could never be a hero yourself or looking for your heroes in Sports illustrated or People magazine, you might be led astray. Being a hero is not about being rich, talented, beautiful, or famous. Rather, it’s about the choices you make. Every one of us has what it takes to act with a full heart and serve others. The choice is yours.