Major Dick Winters: This is what a hero looks like.
On June 6, 1944, the day known around the world as D-Day, 1st Lieutenant Dick Winters of the 101st Airborne led an attack that has been celebrated and studied for the past 70 years. Winters led attack known as The Assault on Brecourt Manor which is still taught at the US Military Academy at West Point as one of the finest examples of fire and maneuver in military history.
Just 23 American soldiers from three different companies attacked 60 German soldiers. The Germans were dug in with emplaced machine guns covering 88 millimeter cannons. Winters and his men destroyed the German weapons and killed or captured the enemy force. Just three Americans were killed and one wounded.
Winters earned the second highest award the Army gives, the Distinguished Service Cross. Three of his men were awarded the Silver Star Medal. A dozen more earned the Bronze Star Medal. The important thing to note is seven soldiers did not receive a medal for valor.
Most soldiers I know make fun of war movies. But even the most cynical express admiration for the HBO Series "Band of Brothers." In unguarded moments, I have heard some very tough men say they would die happy if they could have been with Dick Winters.
Fast Forward 65 Years
In October of 2009 I was walking into the headquarters building of Camp Adder, Iraq. The door burst open and a sergeant stormed out muttering to herself "he's getting a Bronze-fucking-Star and his fat ass has never been outside the wire."
The sergeant was furious about the end-of-tour awards. A chaplain who never went outside the wire (off the main base) was going to receive the Bronze Star Medal for his service. "Everybody above Staff Sergeant and 1st Lieutenant gets a Bronze-fucking-Star," the sergeant said. "I hate this shit."
The same culture that has grade inflation at every level of education gives the equivalent of "everybody wins" medals to people who never faced enemy fire. The same Bronze Star Medal presented to a dozen men who attacked 60 Germans dug in with cannons and machine guns is now routinely given to maintenance and clerical soldiers who never faced enemy direct fire.
Five More Years
Since I returned from Iraq, many people have thanked me for my service and some said I am a hero. I am not. In fact, no soldier I know considers himself of herself a hero. Even the aircrews who launched MEDEVAC missions in Iraq in blackout sandstorms to save soldiers would on convoy security. Like athletes who always know someone better than they are, these men and women who I think of as heroes will always point to someone else who is "really a hero."
All of us who served on Camp Adder in 2009 had a chance to serve under a man we all considered a hero. The commander of Camp Adder was Col. Peter Newell, a battalion commander and a real hero in the Battle for Fallujah in 2004. When Rolling Stone magazine wrote about Newell, they praised him for his leadership. Newell earned the Silver Star Medal at Fallujah.
When someone calls me a hero, I smile. But in my head, it is like when people ask me if I would ever ride in the Tour de France. On my best day riding, I could not last two miles with the Tour de France riders--the best in the world. When someone calls me a hero, I think of Newell, Winters and some of the air crew members I knew in Iraq. It's not me.