I grew up in a military town. To me it wasn’t unusual to meet someone who had fought in the trenches of World War One, Flew from the deck of a carrier at Coral Sea or Midway, stormed the beaches of Normandy, flew in a bomber over Germany, Okinawa or Iwo Jima. It also wan’t unusual to meet a Marine who had been at Chosin Reservoir or someone who had spent time over or in the jungles of Viet Nam, even former ‘guests’ of the Hanoi Hilton were not unheard of.
In some ways these were the lucky ones who, while scarred emotionally and sometimes physically, had always manged to return home. Other didn’t return alive and some have yet to return at all as no trace has ever been found. These are the ones we celebrate and remember today, the ones who we call Heroes (whining of a certain MSNBC Host aside).
Today I thought about a different hero, one who wore the uniform but didn’t give his life in combat. I didn’t know him personally, but I was there when he made the ultimate sacrifice. The young Lieutenant Commander’s QF-86 Sabre has suffered an engine failure over the desert of Southern California and was going down. The pilot popped his canopy in preparation to eject when he saw the elementary school in his path. He could have punched out and taken the chance that the plane would miss the school, but instead he chose to ride the plane in and ensure it missed the school. The pilot survived the crash, but his harness had jammed and he was unable to get it open. By the time someone with a knife showed up the heat from the fire was to intense to rescue the pilot. He died in the flames.
The town later re-named the school after the Lieutenant Commander and while he didn’t die in combat, he was in fact a big damn hero who sacrificed himself for a school full of children.