They put others before themselves. They sprint into danger. They pay dearly for their courage, and they often go years--if ever--without the recognition they deserve.
Washington is not the first place most people expect to find heroism these days, but this year the White House has been full of true heroes. I'm not talking about politics. I'm far too smart to do that. Instead, I'm referring to a series of ceremonies this year in which an unusually large number of U.S. veterans have been awarded the Medal of Honor. (The ceremonies will continue throughout the rest of the year.)
"Their courage almost defies imagination," President Obama said at a ceremony recently honoring 24 such heroes whose awards were delayed for years because of prejudice and bureaucratic ineptitude. He's right, but we can also find similarities in their stories, and inspiration. While few of us are called to rush into oncoming bullets, we make choices every day about whether to act heroically or ordinarily. Here are five qualities that truly heroic leaders have in common.
Courage and bravery leap to mind first when we think of heroism. It's difficult to achieve anything truly heroic unless you're up against daunting odds. As Nelson Mandela put it, "Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it."
Example: Marine Corporal Kyle Carpenter literally dove on a grenade to protect a fellow Marine during an attack in Afghanistan in November 2010. Both men survived but were badly wounded. After a military investigation into exactly what happened, Carpenter will receive the Medal of Honor at a ceremony later this year.
True leaders always puts others first. Ironically, that kind of selflessness can often be strategic, because focusing on others' needs often winds up helping you achieve your own goals. However, a heroic leader does so without any expectation of payback.
Example: During the Korean War, an army private named Leonard Kravitz (the uncle and namesake of singer Lenny Kravitz) voluntarily stayed behind to cover the retreat of other soldiers in his unit. Remaining as the last line of defense saved his entire platoon, it cost him his life on March 7, 1951. It took until this year for him to be recognized posthumously for his heroism with the Medal of Honor
Nothing makes a heroic leader seem a little less heroic than if he or she seems to want constant credit for his or her actions. True heroism can amaze us, but it also often contains a component of modesty.
Example: Army Sergeant Santiago Erevia received the Medal of Honor earlier this year as a result of his heroism in Vietnam in 1969. For 32 years after he left the military, however, while he carried mail for the U.S. Postal Service, he never talked much about his military service--despite the fact that he'd already been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the military's second-highest honor.
"I didn't give it too much thought," Erevia said. "You know, you go from day-to-day, do what you're told."
While heroism often requires quick thinking and decisiveness, truly heroic leaders often also display an impressive amount of patience.
Example: In September 1969, Melvin Morris was a Special Forces sergeant serving in Vietnam, and he led a mission across enemy lines to rescue a fellow U.S. soldier. Along the way, according to an official account, he "single-handedly destroyed an enemy force that had pinned his battalion from a series of bunkers ... [and] was shot three times as he ran back toward friendly lines with the American casualties."
"Better late than never," Morris told a newspaper when asked how he felt about waiting four and a half decades to receive the medal this year. The newspaper also reported that like other heroes, Morris had never talked much about his military service, "out of respect for the gravity of taking a human life."
Separate from selflessness, heroic leaders display a sense of concern and kindness for others. This can often manifest itself in strong but gentle actions intended to improve the lives of others. These are small acts of heroism that rarely attract any notice.
Example: Army veteran Jose Rodela received the Medal of Honor earlier this year for his valor during an 18-hour battle in Vietnam in September 1969. However, Rodela was also known for having taken in a 12-year-old Cambodian orphan his unit had found living alone. Rodela made plans to adopt the boy and bring him back to his family in the United States, although the boy unfortunately was later killed when he stepped on a mine.
"That incident was the hardest he faced during his service in Vietnam," according to an official Army report, adding that Rodela still cries when he remembers the boy. "I already considered him my son."
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