Heroes in a Culture Where Heroes Don’t Exist

I was reading Matthew Desmond’s On the Fireline: Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters this past week and came across a couple passages that struck me as odd, unfamiliar, and surprisingly understandable.  It was in a chapter about the mentality of how wildland firefighters assess and face risks each day.  Within his firecrew, Desmond asked if they were ever afraid on a fire, if they ever experienced fear.  Their conclusion:  No.  There is no risk on fire.

They believe that if you follow the 10 Standard Firefighter Orders and the 18 Watch-Out Situations, the risk associated with their profession will be mitigated and no harm will come to them.

The passage that struck me the most was after one of the crew members received a note from Arizona Diamondbacks player Matt Williams in which was scribed, “To the Elk River Fire Crew: Keep fighting fires, saving lives, and being heroes.”  The crew member framed the napkin and posted it in the conference room, then the story continues as follows:

When they saw it, crewmembers keeled over in laughter because Williams actually thought wildland firefighting is a dangerous profession whereas my crewmembers didn’t see it that way at all.  Whereas those outside the firefighting world believe firefighters “put their lives on the line every single day,” that they are “paid for their bravery,” as William Goode expressed it, most of my crewmembers conceptualize their profession as devoid of danger.  To them there are no heroes, for there is no risk.

Wildland fire is full of its hazards, its risks.  Some would even go as far as saying that it is one of the most dangerous professions, and yet, the men on the line truly believe that heroes cannot exist among them.  Oh, they see the risks, we all do, but we take steps to mitigate them and then shove those thoughts that tell us “we could die today” into the back of our heads.  They are a distraction.  And we know that one moment of hesitation could mean death.  Or worse.

Just over a year and a half ago, 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots lost their lives to the flames.  We remember them as heroes who paid the ultimate price.  They were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Wildland firefighting is extremely dangerous (sorry, mom!).  In an instant, situations can change, the fire can blow up on you, and that moment of hesitation can kill you.  Or a member of your crew.

All wildland firefighters know that risk.  So do our military forces in the midst of conflict.  Police officers who walk our streets.  Structure firefighters who rush into burning buildings.  And so many others who face dangers each day.  It’s part of our profession.  Part of our calling.

We don’t consider ourselves heroes.  We are just doing what we are called to do.

In the aftermath of the Joplin Tornado (2011), I met a man who people called a hero.  His actions saved a handful of nurses and numerous patients in the hospital after it received a direct hit from the EF-5 vortex.  An ordinary, messed up individual.  Just like you or me.  A hero.

He told me one night that he was no hero.  He didn’t deserve to be called a hero.  He just did what he knew was right.  What he hoped someone would do for him.

There are no heroes.  Only broken people who do the right thing when the world needs it most.

And yet, heroes surround us.  Individuals who possess the courage to take a stand, even when their strength fails them.

As one of my favorite bands, Superchick, puts it: “Heroes are made when you make a choice.”

A friend of mine asked me before I hot here, just when we were all shipping out, he asked me “Why are you going to fight somebody elses war? What do y’all think you’re heroes?”  I didn’t know what to say at the time, but if he asked me again, I’d say No.  I’d say there is no way in hell.  Nobody asks to be a hero.  It just sometimes turns out that way.
– Black Hawk Down


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