“Don’t call me a hero.” That short sentence—firm, self-effacing, nonnegotiable—ties together all the heroic men and women celebrated in this issue of Newsweek. If there is one factor that unites the American heroes we spotlight here—as well as at our companion summit at the Institute of Peace in Washington on Nov. 14 and 15—it is their adamant refusal to be portrayed as special.
Heroism knows no particular context. A civilian on the street comes to a fellow citizen’s defense in the event of a crime; a schoolgirl rushes to the aid of another in the face of schoolyard bullies; cops and firefighters act in the course of their daily duty. Courage can and should be quotidian. But it is often seen in its most impressive form in times of civic peril and catastrophe. Witness the countless acts of bravery in the face of Hurricane Sandy, which laid low our nation’s greatest metropolis and devastated immense swaths of America’s East Coast.
Yet the heroism most avidly celebrated is that of the soldier. In this issue, we tell the tales of warriors who fought and died for America and of those insanely brave—but oft-unsung—medevacs, like the team known as DUSTOFF 73 (featured in this week’s cover story), unarmed men and women in uniform who venture into raging battlefields to rescue the wounded. As Tony Dokoupil and John Ryan write, the DUSTOFF crew wear patches on their uniforms inscribed with the last words of Maj. Charles Kelly, the first medevac commander, who died in Vietnam while defying orders to abandon a dangerous rescue site: “I’ll leave when I have your wounded.” Dokoupil and Ryan tell the story of events on June 25, 2011, one of the most decorated missions in aviation history, in which the team ventured into a battlefield called the Valley of Death in Afghanistan. The account of the 48-hour rescue is spine tingling, with the crew of the last remaining medevac helicopter clinging to a rope amid flying bullets as they picked up the dead and dying from a treacherous Taliban enclave.
Awe is the only appropriate word to describe our response to the heroes here. Take the example of Tawanda “Tee” Hanible, a rebellious girl from the South Side of Chicago who joined the Marines. A single mother, she was deployed to fight our war in Iraq, the first woman with one of the first units to land in Kuwait in advance of the invasion. Although she was the lone woman among 300 men, she neither asked for nor received special treatment. What she did get was unstinting chivalry from her fellow soldiers: “I had 300 brothers,” she tells Gail Sheehy, “and they were taking care of me.” Hanible today is a recruiter for the Marines, drawing into her beloved corps young men and women who have—as she had when she was their age—the drive to serve America, a passionate urge to serve, and to place at America’s disposal all of their raw courage.
Courage doesn’t get much more raw than that of Lt. Michael Murphy. Pinned against a steep hillside by 40 heavily armed Taliban—who had ambushed the lieutenant and his three fellow Navy SEALs—Murphy exposed himself to certain death when he broke for open ground so he could get enough signal to radio for backup. He was shot dead, but not before he got a message through. One of the four SEALs survived to be rescued. Had it not been for Murphy’s heroism, every single one would have died.
Murphy was awarded the Medal of Honor, posthumously, the first naval officer to win the award since Vietnam. “America is looking for heroes, and right now the Navy SEALs are the flavor of the day,” a retired SEAL captain tells Daniel Klaidman, who strikes a warning note in his compelling piece titled “The SEALs’ Biggest Threat.” Since the Osama bin Laden raid, some feel that there is a danger that the SEALs’ code of teamwork and secrecy may be vulnerable to the lure of celebrity culture. The publication of No Easy Day, Matt Bissonnette’s first-person account of the killing of bin Laden, and the rash of movie and TV specials has spurred much soul-searching. Heroism, after all, is about submerging the ego in the service of the group, and the country. Fortunately, as this issue shows, the narcissists are truly vastly outnumbered by those who prefer to say, “Don’t call me a hero.”