by Dr. Monroe Mann, PhD, Esq, MBA
Bronze star nominated Iraq war veteran
Both Clinton and Trump have suspended their political activity for a day, and so today I similarly write to all of you as simply… an American.
While I am an American who was in NYC on 9/11; whose sister was under the towers in a subway car when the planes hit and the towers came down; who donned his US Army uniform and drove into the city with his WWII vet father passing through police road block after police road block that morning to find her; and who proudly deployed overseas as an US Army intelligence officer three years later to fight those sons of bitches head on–that’s not the American I am writing to you as today. Today, I am simply writing to you… as an American.
Yesterday, I more or less coincidentally saw two movies about airplanes. The first was “Flight 93”, showing on television, about the daring acts of the “Let’s Roll!” crew in 2001. The second was “Sully”, showing in theaters, about the miraculously successful landing on the Hudson in 2009. How I randomly ended up watching two airplane movies, and with totally different outcomes, is rather curious, but somehow, I don’t believe a coincidence.
This is today’s missive: you don’t choose to be a hero. It’s not something you can plan for. And it’s not something you can chase in hopes of finding. You just have to be ready to choose to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done. You don’t have to have a special job. As the heroes of Flight 93 showed us in 2001 and Sully and his team showed us in 2009, “ordinary people” in “ordinary jobs” can end up being America’s greatest heroes.
You don’t have to be a member of SWAT. Don’t have to be a NAVY seal. You don’t have to be a police officer or a fireman. No, you just have to be ready to do what needs to be done and then do it. Calmly. Coolly. Staying in control.
I realize that none of us should chase heroism. In fact, those that do may never find it. So if you watch one of these movies and start thinking, “I want to do that!” you may be missing the point. I did that. While watching both movies, I thought to myself, “I want to be the hero too!” But I stopped myself mid-thought.
It’s simple: I realized last night that heroism is not something people seek and find; it’s rather a life calling already within each of us, waiting for the opportunity to present us with the decision: will we make the brave choice and do what needs to be done?
On this special day, let us remember those who died on 9/11. Those on Flight 93 who sacrificed their lives to protect ours. The people like Sully and his co-pilot who, instead of following instructions from the tower, bravely chose to “break the rules” and do what they knew was right even if it meant disregarding instructions from the tower.
Some say we all cannot be heroes. In the literal sense, they are right. In fact, most of us will never be a hero in the traditional sense. But that is not something that should make you sad. In many ways, I realize that to be a hero means you probably put your life in danger. And many heroes end up dead in the ‘rescue’. We should not strive to be heroes in this world. Like I said, those that pursue a career because they want to be heroic are doing it all for the wrong reasons. If we do that, we are pursuing vanity and pride and fame; NOT heroism. Heroism cannot be pursued as a goal. It can only be recognized in the aftermath. A key piece of evidence is that most people hailed as heroes… reject the accolades. Those who are truly heroic… never think of themselves as being heroic. In their mind, they were simply doing the right thing; doing what needed to be done.
However, that all being said, there is something we all can do if we are inspired to action by watching these two films (and others like them): what we all can do is BE READY to be a hero when and if the hour arrives. Don’t look for it; just be ready to make the decision to act when it’s against your best interest; when it puts your life in danger; when it is not your responsibility. A huge part of this is realizing that we don’t need to be in a special “high speed” and “dangerous” profession to find ourselves in circumstances requiring a heroic act. Neither the “Let’s Roll” passengers on Flight 93 nor Sully, his crew, and the NY Waterways boat captains were “seeking heroism”. No, they were just living their lives. But when the time came to make a heroic decision, they did. And as we all know, none of them ever considered themselves “heroes”. Why? Because they were just doing what they knew was right.
So how can you commemorate those who didn’t make it? As I have urged in previous years’ 9/11 stories: “Do it for those who can’t.”
What do I mean?
Let’s be honest: we don’t have to pursue our dreams. None of us do. We also don’t have to be grateful for this life. We don’t have to be happy and positive people. We don’t have to be helpful people. Nor do we even have to be… heroic people.
But… (and it’s a big but) I believe those who died on 9/11 and those on that flight in the Hudson would all agree that if you are somehow still alive on this planet, you should at the very least take advantage of what those who died cannot: life.
I know they are all rooting for you. They all want you to succeed. They wouldn’t want you to live in sadness. In depression. In self-pity. In a sea of loneliness. In an ocean of regret. No!
They would want you to live the life that they were not able to live. (9/11).
They want you to take advantage of the life that you have that they nearly lost. (Sully and the 154 others on board).
I remember when I saw the movie Saving Private Ryan. It was the reason I joined the US Military. I didn’t do it because I wanted to be a hero and save another “Private Ryan”. I joined the US Army to say thank you to all of those men who died on the beaches of Normandy.
“By the end of the first day, none of the assault forces had secured their first-day objectives. Allied casualties on June 6 have been estimated at 10,000 killed, wounded, and missing in action: 6,603 Americans, 2,700 British, and 946 Canadians.
The cost of the Normandy campaign was high on both sides. From D-day through August 21, the Allies landed more than two million men in northern France and suffered more than 226,386 casualties: 72,911 killed/missing and 153,475 wounded.”
Can you imagine the terror and fright as those troops saw the entire boat of men in front of them get slaughtered within seconds? I can’t. The closest I have come to that are the daily convoys I went on Iraq, always wondering if today was the day I got shot or blown up. The tension was there. Every day. And I still suffer from the PTSD. Every time a glass breaks at a restaurant, or I hear fireworks, or a car backfires… I jump. So scared. Thinking that I am being attacked by a mortar or a rocket. The booms in Iraq were incessant. All throughout the day and night. Sometimes being woken up in the middle of the night by an explosion so loud you jump out of your bead, sweating, heart beating a mile a minute, reaching for your rifle. Once, the window next to my bed broke. While driving here in NY, even today, ten years later, I somehow pick up the scent of gunpowder (from where, I don’t know) and I feel like I’m back in those humvees, looking at every car that passes, wondering if it’s going to blow up and me with it. And wherever I go, I am always watching my back, looking for snipers on rooftops, and looking for anything that could be a bomb. Rationally, I know the likelihood is so slim, and yet, I can’t stop.
And yet… all this that I experienced in Iraq was nothing compared to what those men experience on D-Day. ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.
And guess what? They all had hopes and dreams too. Most were young kids in their teens. Shot dead within minutes. Shot dead within hours. Could any of them come home and pursue those dreams? Their dreams of going to college? Their dreams of starting a business? Their dreams of finding a wife? Their dreams of… becoming an actor?
The answer, we all know, is no. Because they died fighting for us. It makes me cry when I saw that movie. And it made me cry so much back in 1999 that I decided I had no choice: I had to join the military. I had to say thank you to all those who died on the beaches of Normandy so that I could pursue my “stupid” career as an actor. That’s not a criticism of actors. It is, rather, a testament to the sacrifice those men made for all of us to pursue our dreams and live in peace.
So yes, I implore you: do it for those who can’t. If you truly want to memorialize those who died in the revolutionary war, the war of 1812, the civil war, vietnam, korea, iraq, afghanistan, and every other conflict… DO IT FOR THOSE WHO CAN’T.
If you truly want to memorialize those who died on 9/11… DO IT FOR THOSE WHO CAN’T.
If you truly want to memorialize what happened on the Hudson… DO IT FOR THOSE WHO NEARLY LOST EVERYTHING.
Be inspired by the fact that you are still breathing. If you are still breathing, things can still change. Your life is not worthless. You have the capability of helping tens, hundreds, thousands, and millions of people—IF… you get off your ass and take advantage of the life and freedom that you have. To ignore what I am telling you is an insult to those who didn’t make it. Because it’s precisely what they would have wanted you to do. Because it’s precisely what they would have tried to do had they made it home.
So please, figure out what you are meant to do with your life. And don’t you stop until you get there… or die trying.
Do you remember one of the last scenes of Saving Private Ryan? Tom Hanks and his men died in the process of saving Ryan. Just before Hanks’ character dies, Private Ryan (Matt Damon) asks, “What can I ever do to thank you for saving my life?” The response? “Earn it.” Earn the life that we can no longer live. (9/11) Earn the life that we sacrificed for yours. (Military/Flight 93) Recognize the value of the life you have. (Sully)
God bless the families of those who lost loved ones.
God bless America.
God bless each of you reading this today, wherever you may be in the world.