No one wakes up on a particular day and thinks “today, I will be a hero.” Anyone who would even consider thinking such a thing has no idea what heroism truly is. And, unfortunately, as much as many of us would like for there to be an abundance of heroes, the truth is that most of those deemed to be heroes are far from it.
To our benefit, we do have heroes in our society and they are not the type of people that you’d normally associate with the term. My brother and cousin
currently serve in the military and have been deployed numerous times to fight various wars. My father and uncles served in World War II, from Pearl Harbor through Guadalcanal, the air war over Europe and through the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Japan and the post-war occupation.
They aren’t heroes. They all knew what we were getting into when they enlisted (or were drafted) and they were doing our jobs. If you think that a soldier (or a police officer or firefighter) doesn’t start every day with the realization that this may be the day that he or she will be called upon to visit violence or danger and possibly give up life or limb for the job you are wrong. Putting life on the line is a volitional, deliberate choice made by those in uniform.
I am certain that on the morning of September 11, 2001, as Tom Burnett was rushing to catch an early morning flight, United 93, out of Newark to his home in San Ramon, California (where I am writing this post), the prospect of giving his life in battle that day was the last thing on his mind. As it happened, though, Tom, along with Mark Bingham and Jeremy Glick, fought the first battle against al Qaeda on (or above) American soil and gave their lives that monumental morning. Those who faced death on Flight 93 and chose to defy the certain horror that was about to occur, with the slim hope of survival but the more realistic expectation that they would surely die fighting their executioners, are the rare heroes of our time.
Close to my office is the overpass in the attached picture. This overpass, in Tom Burnett’s last hometown of San Ramon, California, was renamed in Tom’s honor. Most people never notice the sign and as time goes by, fewer people even know who Tom was or what happened that morning on Flight 93. I confidently state that were Tom to have been informed of what would happen prior to his boarding that flight, he would have chosen to not be a hero and would have done everything possible to avoid the flight return to San Ramon alive. That’s the truth about heroes-they never choose their fate and the honor is a woeful consolation to the sacrifices they made. There is something about the banality of an overpass that almost causes me to think that the sacrifices and courage of the passengers on Flight 93 is being trivialized by such a memorial. Monumental heroism and bravery condensed down into a plain sign on an unknown overpass merely mocks the magnitude of what happened that morning.
I avoid driving over the overpass, as I cry every time I see the sign in the attached picture, remembering that terrible morning and contemplating the enormous courage and sacrifice made by those brave folks on Flight 93. Today, I made an exception to tie a yellow ribbon around the otherwise bare signpost in memory of the greatest of American heroes. True American heroes are rare, but Flight 93 was crowded with them that morning.