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Leadership: Heroes Redefined

“We need not talk about our morale. As committed soldiers, we will see this mission though.” Those words were thrown into poignant relief the other day when it became known that two of the men who penned those words were killed in Baghdad. Yance T. Gray and Omar Mora, both sergeants in the 82nd Airborne, died in a roadside accident when their five-ton truck overturned.

“We need not talk about our morale. As committed soldiers, we will see this mission though.” Those words were thrown into poignant relief the other day when it became known that two of the men who penned those words were killed in Baghdad. Yance T. Gray and Omar Mora, both sergeants in the 82nd Airborne, died in a roadside accident when their five-ton truck overturned.

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Gray and Mora were two of seven soldiers who had written an Op Ed piece, “The War as We Saw It,” published by the New York Times that questioned the successes that senior military and civilian administrators were claiming. “[O]ur presence may have released the Iraqis from the grip of a tyrant, but it has also robbed them of their self respect… [T]o regain dignity is to call [U.S. forces] what we are – an army of occupation – and force our withdrawal.”

The 82nd Airborne is an elite group of paratroopers. Their mettle was proven at D-Day and their rigorous conditioning and training continues to this day. They are true professionals; they know combat up close and way too personal. The media is fond of calling them, and their brethren serving in Iraq, heroes. I do not disagree with that term, but I think that to use the term objectifies them in ways that deprives soldiers of their humanity. Why? Because like the term “saint,” “hero” implies that these people are some how special and can do extraordinary things. They can, but they are not super human. They are all too human. They bleed when they are wounded and they die when their injuries overpower the flesh. They are also all-too cognizant of the reality around them; they know the odds. Yet day after day, mission after mission, they put themselves in harm’s way because someone in the chain of command told them to do so.

Soldiers do not refer to themselves as heroes; only fallen soldiers earn that honor. Soldiers commit to and live by the code of service. They volunteered to serve their country in whatever way it saw fit, even when it meant multiple tours in combat zones. Do they complain? Certainly, and that’s why the article in the New York Times was so powerful. It was very personal look at war from the fighting man’s point of view. Their skepticism does not reflect the point of view of every soldier, nor their commander. But it does reflect realities on the ground – sectarian killings, betrayal of American troops by supposed allies, and total failure of political reconciliation. Yet they didn’t ask for reassignment; they only asked to continue the mission. And that is what makes the sacrifice of men like Sergeants Gray and Mora all the more meaningful; they knew the odds but they pushed on.

The hero label does something else that is unsettling. It creates a kind of “leave it to the heroes” mentality that allows us to continue our daily lives undisturbed. We can look away from war on our TV; our soldiers cannot. They see innocent men, women and children die in horrific car blasts; they feel the personal loss of a fallen comrade sometimes whom they see die right before their very eyes. And through it all, they feel the anguish of being away from home week after week, month after month. Everyday they are robbed of the personal interaction that comes from their roles as sons, husbands, daughters, wives, and mothers and fathers. Yes, that’s heroism, too. But the kind that is born of the pain of loss and deprivation put aside to fulfill the mission.

Heroism is not blind courage; it is selfless action. It is knowing the odds are stacked against you, but feeling that you must do what you do for the good of others. Firefighters and policemen find themselves in similar impossible situations. Yet again and again we learn that they put themselves in harm’s way to save a life, even when they lose their own. Again and again wounded soldiers ask to go back to combat – not because they feel super-human — but because they are all too human. They want to serve along side their fellow soldiers. Sergeants Gray and Mora and their colleagues put it best: “We need not talk about our morale. As committed soldiers, we will see this mission though.”

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Sources:David Stout “2 G.I.’s Skeptical but Loyal, Die in a Truck Crash in Iraq” New York Times 9.13.07; Buddhika Jayamaha, Wesley D. Smith, Jeremy Roebuck, Omar Mora, Edward Sandmeier, Yance T. Gray and Jeremy A. Murphy “The War As We Saw It” New York Times 8.19.07

John Baldoni • Leadership Expert: Executive Coach/Author/Speaker • Baldoni Consulting, LLC • www.johnbaldoni.com

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