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City Lights: What makes a hero?

July 30, 2010|Michael Miller

There's been a debate in the Los Angeles Times recently about whether all of America's servicemen and women should be labeled as heroes. William J. Astore, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, began with a July 22 opinion piece arguing that automatically calling troops "heroes" was misguided and even dangerous. "By making our military a league of heroes, we ensure that the brutalizing aspects and effects of war will be played down," he wrote.

Then, predictably, came the backlash: Dorian de Wind, a retired U.S. Air Force major, denounced Astore's views and argued that the brutal actions of a few soldiers don't diminish the bravery and selflessness of most. "[C]alling the other 99.9% of our troops heroes will definitely not produce 'cognitive dissonance' in the minds of Americans, nor will it result in Americans calling acts of violence of our troops 'necessary, admirable, even noble,'" he countered.

While this brouhaha plays itself out on the opinion pages, Joanne Rasmussen of Huntington Beach prepares for her only daughter to ship overseas with the U.S. Navy.

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I've interviewed Rasmussen on several occasions, but never about the military. I know her best as one of the masterminds behind the Huntington Beach Community Garden. Right now, though, she's settling into another role — military mom. Her daughter, Elizabeth Savino, enlisted in the Navy last year and is preparing for a job in Aviation Ordnance.

For those unfamiliar, Aviation Ordnance is a unit of the Navy whose job is to load live bombs into jets before missions. ("If there is an error," Rasmussen told me, "I say goodbye to my baby girl.") Savino may be deployed in December or January, and it will be the first time her mother has had a child in action overseas; her son was in the Marines for five years, but never saw combat.

When Rasmussen told me her story, I thought about those pundits in the Times debating whether the phrase "hero" applied to people like her daughter. I e-mailed her the articles to get her thoughts, and she replied candidly.

"People can throw around the word 'hero,' or not," Rasmussen wrote. "The word itself is not what is important. What is important is to get the job at hand accomplished. Why? Because those who work in the military, as a whole, realize that you cannot be looking this way or that, thinking of yourself as someone great or small. You focus on the job at hand, or your buddy or yourself will be ... no more."

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