The word “hero” is freely used today, so much so that it has become a trite catchphrase in the same way that anything that is remotely famous is now automatically called an “icon” or the way that the designation of “star” is given to almost any 20-something actor who has appeared in more than two movies.
Hero has its roots in mythological Greek heroes such as Hercules, legendary characters with superhuman powers. That kind of hero has been reincarnated in our folklore and popular fiction. Comic books, television and movies have created heroes by the dozens: Robin Hood, The Lone Ranger, Flash Gordon, Superman, Indiana Jones, X-Men, etc.
We have our sports heroes: Men who play ball well, drive cars fast or shoot hoops a lot. And movie heroes: Men who look good as they pretend to be brave and honorable up on a movie screen. Pop culture figures are certainly stars, but do they really qualify as heroes? Does acting talent or physical ability by and of itself equal heroism?
To my way of thinking, a hero is a special person, a person worthy of admiration and respect, and the word should be reserved for those who have truly earned it. A hero is first and foremost brave. You can add honor and virtue into the mix as well. And I want to put selflessness in there too. Physical strength can help, but it doesn’t necessarily make one a hero. The hero possesses an inner strength that can’t be perceived from the outside.
The true American hero is the man who quietly goes about doing the right thing — the right thing for his family, his country and his God. He is noble, but not in the way of having title or rank or aristocracy, but noble in having fine personal qualities and high moral standards. He doesn’t expect (nor does he usually get) riches for what he does — that’s not his motivation. It’s not about himself; it’s not about winning medals or loving cups, or winning any kind of awards. It’s not even about winning per se. He does what he does because it is the good and right thing to do, period.
America is fortunate to have been blessed with millions of true American heroes though the years — gentle, soft-spoken men who have risked life and limb to protect American liberties and ways of life. They are all around us; they can be found standing behind us in line at the market, they might work in the next cubicle at our office, maybe they run a small business downtown, and many times they live just down the street. One such hero is William B. Mitchell.
Mr. Mitchell is a retired Commander in the U.S. Navy. Born in Minnesota, he came from a long line of proud newspapermen. When things started to heat up in the world, he joined the Navy in 1940 and served in both World War II and in Korea. His service included duty on battleships and destroyers throughout the Pacific Theater, including the USS Halloran and the USS Crane. He saw plenty of action in Okinawa and Iwo Jima, including a kamikaze attack when his ship, the USS Halloran, was hit, killing several crew members.
After the war with Japan was won, Commander Mitchell retired from active duty but was called back when Korea began. After Korea, he stayed in service as a reservist on call until 1977 when he finally retired from the Navy.
I had the honor of meeting Commander Mitchell and his wife, Lorraine, recently at their home in Burbank, California. The same house they have been living in for decades, where they raised their three kids. They are the parents of my sister Debra’s good friend, Melissa. I knew Melissa, but had never met her mom and dad until just last week.
I sat and chatted with the Mitchells for a time, and then Commander Mitchell took me into his office and shared some of his service memories with me. As he spoke proudly but humbly of his time in the U.S. Navy, my eyes scanned the citations, ribbons, medals and photos that graced the wall over his desk. There were personal letters, newspaper clippings and commendations signed by the Secretary of the Navy. This was the first time I ever met a serviceman who had received the Bronze Star. It was a great honor for me and something I will never forget.
The Criteria for receiving the Bronze Star are as follows:
“The Bronze Star Medal is awarded to any person who, while serving in any capacity in or with the military of the United States after 6 December 1941, distinguished himself or herself by heroic or meritorious achievement or service, not involving participation in aerial flight, while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States; while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force; or while serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party.”
Did you catch that key word? Heroic. I don’t know if Commander Mitchell was ever any good at playing baseball. I doubt whether he ever acted in a movie. And I don’t think he was ever able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but one thing I am absolutely sure of: Commander William B. Mitchell is a real American hero.