Ask a hero if he or she is a hero and the answer will likely be "no."
"I just did what I had to do" is how most heroes describe their heroic acts. That's not modesty talking. It's just the truth. Nobody sets out to be a hero. It simply happens when ordinary people confront extraordinary circumstances with the best that is in them.
With Veterans Day just around the corner on Nov. 11, TNT focuses on heroism in its moving documentary, "Medal of Honor," which tells the extraordinary stories of six Medal of Honor winners, including Staff Sergeant Henry Erwin.
"Lord, you're going to have to help me" is what Erwin said when he faced an awful test of his mettle. It was 1945, and Erwin was a 24-year-old radio operator in the Army Air Corps. He was in the lead plane of a flight of B-29 bombers on their way to attack a Japanese refinery.
An Alabama native from a large family, Erwin had learned about hard work and sacrifice before the war. His father died when Erwin was only 10, and as the eldest, Erwin had to support his family with backbreaking labor in a steel mill. He honed his sense of responsibility the hard way.
In addition to operating the radio on that B-29, Erwin had one more duty to perform. He had to drop phosphorus flares through a tube in the bomber's belly to tell the rest of the formation when the attack was to begin. It was a routine maneuver.
But this time, when Erwin dropped the flare down the tube, the bomber hit an air pocket that blew the blazing signal back into the plane. Burning at a temperature of 2,000+ degrees, the flare exploded in Erwin's face.
Erwin couldn't see. He knew that his face was on fire, and the pain was unbearable. But he knew what he had to do to save the bomber and his buddies, and he did it. He picked up the flare with his bare hands. He could feel it searing his flesh down to the bone. Crawling on his hands and knees, he made his way to the front of the bomber and threw the flare out the co-pilot's window. He said later he didn't know how he did it, but he did. And his country honored him with the highest award for valor or self-sacrifice that can be presented to somebody wearing a United States military uniform. Usually it takes months, sometimes years, for a Medal of Honor to be approved. Erwin's was approved in just one day.
Like Erwin's, the other powerful narratives told in "Medal of Honor" are transcendent reminders of what bravery is.
And if we were able to ask the 150 living Medal of Honor recipients what made them find the courage to do what they did, they would likely tell us they had no choice.
Perhaps they didn't chose to be heroes. But one thing is certain. They are the
Style Weekly's mission is to provide smart, witty and tenacious coverage of Richmond. Our editorial team strives to reveal Richmond's true identity through unflinching journalism, incisive writing, thoughtful criticism, arresting photography and sophisticated presentation.
We make sense of the news; pursue those in power; explore the city's arts and culture; open windows on provocative ideas; and help readers know Richmond through its people. We give readers the information to make intelligent decisions.