I cannot think of a group of individuals who fit the above definitions more than the 24 freed U.S. crew members who returned to our shores on Saturday, after being held hostage for 11 days by the Chinese government following a collision between their U.S. Navy surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea.
So you might ask, "Why state the obvious? Of course they are heroes." Unfortunately, the obvious isn't always that obvious to some.
Late last week some of the late-night talk shows spent a good deal of time trying to decide whether or not the 24 crew members deserved the label of hero. There were jokes about their supposed housing at a top-rate Chinese hotel, where they were served gourmet food. According to one late-night jokester, "Their biggest problem was that the raisin toast didn't have enough raisins in it." Ha ha.
Another big yuck making the rounds of late-night talk shows was that the crew failed at their assignment. After all: "They got caught. They messed up. They brought it on themselves." Still another remark claimed that John McCain is a true hero. After all, he was a prisoner for more than five years, and he refused to leave without the rest of his men. These 24, however, weren't gone long enough and didn't suffer long enough (!) to earn hero status. I also have heard some of the same nonsense on talk radio from hosts and callers.
The fact of the matter is that the crew was ordered off the plane by heavily armed troops. They were held two to a room in Chinese officers' quarters. The three women were all housed together in one room. Navy pilot Lt. Shane Osborn was separated from the group and held alone; more on that later. According to Petty Officer Wendy Westbrook, they were fed mostly rice. They did manage to have some Coca-Cola sent in. Sounds like a regular feast.
As for the special sleeping arrangements made for Lt. Osborn, he didn't get to enjoy his privacy all that much. You see, China was using sleep-deprivation techniques against him and other crew members. The good hosts in China are known for using this technique in an effort to weaken the will and disturb the thought processes while digging for secrets. Osborn's first such interrogation began in the middle of the night and lasted nearly five hours.
If all this wasn't enough, the Chinese threatened to put our crew members on trial and told them that the people back home in the U.S. would soon forget about them. The Chinese hoped that these tactics would bring about a confession, from one or more of our people, that they had caused the death of the Chinese fighter pilot. It was a confession that would never come.
I know that I need not continue in order to show just how heroic these 24 men and women really are. But I wonder what could be inside the soul of an American citizen that would make him or her even consider the possibility that these folks are not true heroes.
That warped logic takes me back a few years. I remember doing a tribute to a fallen firefighter on my radio show. Another host on the station at the time used his show to mock my assertion that the dead firefighter was a hero. In fact, he said, if a fireman or police officer dies in the line of duty it's no big deal. He claimed that it's a risk they take knowingly and willingly. He further explained that an encounter that resulted in the death of one or the other probably meant that the man in uniform had failed in his duty. So why make him a hero, he asked.
My son is 18 months old. I'm sure that by the time he's old enough to have heroes to look up to there will be a solid group for him to choose from. People from all walks of life. Police, firefighters, teachers and athletes. Maybe I'll even wind up as one of his heroes, who knows? One thing that I know for sure is that he will learn the story of our crew's unexpected "vacation" on China's Hainan Island, and have at least 24 heroic young men and women to look up to.
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