Marine Air Base, Chu Lai, Vietnam (Archive Photo)
Home Sweet Home (Jan 67 – Feb 68)
Listen to most any Medal of Honor recipient and they will categorically deny being a hero. Listen to Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger, who miraculously landed U.S. Airways Flight 1549 in New York’s Hudson River, and he will also deny being a hero—if these are not acts of courage and heroism, then what is heroism?
I think that courage and heroism are closely linked to awareness. Awareness of fear and danger, and the exceptional ability to overcome that fear with positive action, typically defines the hero. In times of severe stress and danger our bodies tend to go on autopilot—the endocrine system kicks in with massive doses of adrenaline in what is commonly referred to as the: Fight or flight syndrome. This is an involuntary autonomic response to danger that is generated from our primal reptilian brain.
I think in large part that’s why heroes don’t really feel like heroes, because it seems to them to be involuntary and effortless in nature. In fact a large number of heroes report not being fully conscious of events as they unfolded. The reaction is swift, automatic and often lacking in conscious awareness. The hero is reluctant to take credit for something that he didn’t consciously decide on beforehand. Courage and heroism are rarely premeditated acts.
In a very real sense I think these people are correct in their assessment. Bravery doesn’t feel brave if it’s an automatic response. They associate bravery with being fully aware of the potential danger, and then making the conscious decision to face that danger head-on. I think both the hero and the coward often shortchange themselves with an overly harsh and critical assessment of their subsequent behavior. Often times the so-called coward is no more responsible for his actions than the so-called hero—both are typically automatic responses to massive external stress stimulus. Courage and cowardice, then, are very personal issues involving action usually beyond our immediate control.
Automatic or autonomic responses to stress are often a product of hardwired physiological responses coupled with training and experience. Does this then make the heroic deed any less meaningful? Does an automatic negative response rightfully brand one a coward? It is, therefore, often a fine line that separates heroism from cowardice—for an amazing insight into this phenomena I would direct you towards Joseph Conrad’s book: Lord Jim.
I’ve personally witnessed what others would call heroic acts. A case in point occurred at the small Marine air base at Chu Lai, Vietnam, during the Tet Offensive of 1968. In the midst of a massive rocket attack a young Corporal pulled two Phantom F4B aircraft away from two other burning aircraft loaded with napalm and Snake-eye bombs. The two aircraft that were on fire were both burning furiously and poised to explode at any moment. He was subsequently awarded the Bronze Star with V device (for valor). When I later asked this young Marine what he was thinking he told me “I wasn’t thinking.” Hero? I thought so at the time, and I still do. Did he think of himself as a hero? No.
I have included a video interview with Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger for your amazement. He was fully conscious of his situation and the danger associated with his aircraft’s mishap. He talks about having to consciously overcome his initial physiological autonomic response, and to remain calm and resolve the emergency at hand. To my mind there is no doubt that he demonstrated courage and heroism beyond the pale. He made the conscious decision to act decisively, to rely on his vast training and experience, and to resolve the emergency in a miraculous way. His calmness under stress was nothing short of awe-inspiring. Enjoy the video of this American hero: (Click Here).
Stephen F. Dennstedt
Sergeant USMC (1965 – 1971)
Vietnam (1967 – 1968)