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'Ordinary' Americans set stage for extraordinary deeds

  • Published
  • By Col. Daryl Hauck
  • Vice Commander, Aeronautical Systems Center
As a youth, I was spellbound by books such as "The Flying Tigers," "30 Seconds Over Tokyo," "The Battle of Britain" and "The Sinking of the Bismarck." In retrospect, I was drawn not so much by the subject of warfare, but by the way people reacted in tough times. Ordinary people found themselves in extraordinary circumstances and rose to the occasion -- heroes all.

Symbolic of this theme is the scene from "Saving Private Ryan" where Capt. John H. Miller asked what the betting pool -- where his soldiers were trying to guess his occupation back home before the war -- was up to. To calm his men after a particularly tense moment, he chose to finally reveal he had been a high school English teacher. While this is a scene from a movie, it really speaks to the core of what it means to be an American.

From our nation's birth, ordinary citizens were called upon to take up arms to throw off the mantle of oppression. While the exact form has evolved from militia to drafts and now to the all volunteer force, we still see 'ordinary' Americans doing extraordinary things. Our nation has always been able to find its heroes when and where needed.

This is no accident, and while I don't have the exact formula, I think the answer is found in our most basic fundamentals. Our Declaration of Independence declares, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. -- That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

Our Constitution defines such a government, wisely including checks and balances of power across its three branches. This is the most solid core on the planet. While other cultures may claim their antiquity and point to our relative youth, they conveniently look past the dates their current forms of Government were established ... not many, if any, predate 1787. They are still looking for the answer ... the answer that shines so brightly right here!

We will always be able to find our heroes because these founding principles resonate through our hearts and souls. The 'average' person doesn't get excited about serving a sovereign or dictator. That power seems arbitrary to them, and they do not see a hopeful stake in the outcome. Not so in America!

I raised my right hand and swore to defend, not a person or a party, but a document that gives everyone a stake in the outcome and the responsibility to participate to the best of his or her ability.

This feature of American society is not lost on others. One of the most amazing things I ever heard was at a Capitol Hill workshop in Washington, D.C. One of the featured guest speakers was a Palestinian journalist giving a perspective on the Middle East.

In his remarks, he expressed an opinion that the greatest leader who ever lived was American President Abraham Lincoln. I think the last thing I expected to hear during that talk was a compliment of an American leader. Yet he saw it, too. Born of Kentucky farmers, Lincoln worked his way to our top office and led this nation through its toughest challenge in its history. From humble and ordinary beginnings came an extraordinary American.

I would not limit examples of heroes to the military or those in high office. During 9/11, I was assigned to the Pentagon with an office in Rosslyn, Va. While evacuating the city, I had not been able to contact family so I guessed that my wife and children would be at their elementary school where my wife, Lesley, also worked.

When I arrived, I found Lesley and the school principal arranging a process for parents to pick up their children without creating a disruption or panic.

The principal's husband worked at the State Department where it was rumored a bomb had been detonated, and Lesley knew I often bused to the Pentagon several times a day. Neither one of them to that point had any indication their husbands were okay, but their duty was to maintain a safe environment for the school's children, and that is what they did.

Later, while assigned to Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., I again marveled at how heroes emerged when needed. One of my staff received a deployment tasking. Knowing he had a very sick child, I did not think approving that tasking was the right thing to do and thought of how to seek a replacement. I asked another officer from my unit if he would consider deploying instead. His answer was not a request to think about it, but instead was, "Sir, my wife and I have already talked about this ... we both think I should go."

This 'ordinary' captain had just demonstrated our "Service Before Self" core value in an extraordinary manner -- already anticipating he was needed. This was not an easy thing to do as he also had young children at home, but there it was.

As a nation, we've enjoyed peaks and suffered through valleys to be sure. A tender economy and many years at war would seem to point at a valley. Still, I remain hopeful and optimistic -- there are more than 26,000 'ordinary' Americans at Wright-Patterson, and I  know what that means. Extraordinary things will continue to happen.