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An Open Letter To Heroes -

A Response to 9/11/01

This is to the firefighters, police, rescuers and military of our country -- those who responded on September 11th and those who continue to respond to the terrors of our present time.  I write this as a Vietnam veteran, ex-Dustoff (helicopter ambulance) pilot, and a Licensed Professional Counselor with almost a quarter-century of post-graduate experience.  Originally written before I left for New York, I offer this with very few changes after working for two weeks with the Red Cross, at Ground Zero, with some of the finest heroes I have had the honor to meet.

I have anguished over whether to write this letter, but I know it must be said.  There is no good way to feel like a hero.  If you are reading this and wondering why you have survived even more than you are wondering why you are being called a hero, then even more so, this is for you.

No hero feels like a hero . . . 

Unless, you are talking about what the sense of terror mixed with necessity feels like when you look death in the face and know it's your time to do what you know you must do because it must be done -- whether for the sake of lives, truth or humanity. 

Unless, you are talking about the anguish of wondering if you really did your very best, because the nature of tragedies is they're messy and you have yet to accept that no hero can make it ALL right. 

Unless you are talking about the experience of the gut-wrenching guilt, wondering over and over why you survived when others did not. 

Unless you are talking about secretly wondering how much more of the horror and tragedy you can take, because you have accepted that humans may have their limits, while heroes must not. 

Unless you are talking about taking the overwhelming memories of the horror and tragedy into your daily life and into your dreams at night and trying to be normal, when everything in your experience says your personal world is not. 

Unless you are talking about taking whatever accolades may come your way with the choking self-doubt of believing those of your Brothers and Sisters who really deserved it are no longer here to receive it, except for the others in whose ranks you stand, because they surely did more. 

Unless you are talking about feeling alone with the overwhelming collective weight of these emotions bearing down on you, while secretly fearing that your awesome work will be taken away from you if your truth is discovered.

No hero feels like a hero, unless we are talking about all these things and more.  So, the tragedy of being a hero is -- a hero never feels such recognition is deserved and always wonders if he or she will live up to it. 

There are two elements of sacrifice for the hero: the act (or acts) considered heroic in itself, and then the emotional burden that comes as a result.  The first ends in time, but the second can become a lifetime of pain and wondering.  It is the pain of having a relatively momentary event (or events) stretched into a lifetime label. 

Some heroes live with the pain of having their sacrifices being unrecognized, or even denigrated, while others are praised to the point of experiencing the rest of their lives as a series of anticlimactic moments that fall far short of their heroic event.  Where the hero becomes an icon, those who accept the label face suffering, because no amount of recognition is sufficient and no amount of being ignored is adequate. 

So, if somebody calls you a hero -- go along with it.  If you have these feelings, please accept the truth you already know.  You are not an imposter. You know that a hero can be identified by one heroic act, or go unrecognized after a thousand.  If you perform a heroic act and it goes unnoticed or unappreciated, you have the satisfaction of knowing you did it.  True heroes prefer it that way, hence your discomfort with fame.

Heroes don't lack fear -- you know that from experience -- they have courage.  Courage to do what you know must be done in spite of the fear. For one shining moment, you had the courage.  There may be many more moments, or no moments at all.  You know that courage is doing what needs to be done -- in spite of the fear -- because it's the only thing left to do.  That's all heroism is and everything heroism is.  No hero feels they've done enough to deserve the label.

And if you get tagged as the hero icon, just remember it's an icon we all need.  It represents your potential and your commitment as much as any act you may have done.  Your image heals those of us who went before, but were ignored, and it inspires those of us who are yet to come.  We need you because you represent the very best of what we have in ourselves -- and we feel a desperate need to remember that right now.  You stand up there for those of us who went unrecognized -- and those of us unable to stand up at all. 

Your acts represent all the countless heroic acts -- large and small -- that have gone unknown, as well as those acts yet to come.  Just always remember what it has taken much of my lifetime to realize:  There is no way to feel like a hero.  It's okay.  Leave it at that.  Just remember to take care of yourself, because being a hero is an awesome burden to bear -- and we need you with us.

Granville Angell

Copyright 2001 by Granville Angell.  Permission is granted to copy and distribute this essay, except for commercial purposes, if done with credit in the document's entirety, without modification.  

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