Throughout my childhood my hero was Cal Ripken, Jr, shortstop for the Baltimore Orioles. I thought he was the coolest person alive, and I wanted to grow up to be just like him. To my young mind, he was the personification of a hero, mostly because he was a star on my favorite baseball team, he was the Iron Man of baseball, he hit a lot of homeruns, and regularly made highlight reel worthy plays in the field. No further qualifications were necessary. Although my hero worship of the Iron Man has since waned, my admiration for him has carried over into adulthood. The reasons, however, are much more thoughtful, and center on his qualities as a man, instead of being boyish judgements concerning for which baseball team he plays, and how well he does it.
When I was a child collecting as many Cal Ripken, Jr baseball cards as I could get my hands on, the last thing I expected was to be a hero myself. However, along with the realities of paying bills, feeding myself, and finding a career, all things as a child that I never expected to be doing, I have had to face the reality that a group of people of which I am a part are commonly referred to as heroes. This group in which I am included is the veteran community, and specifically the wounded veteran community. By virtue of our decision to place the needs of America before our own, we are deemed heroes by almost all Americans, regardless of the nature of our service to the country.
Having so many heroes(over 20 million veterans as of 2014) in one country begs two questions: what does it take to cross the threshold from mere mortal to hero? and is the meaning of that word now diluted by the vast number of people who have crossed this threshold?
The qualities required to be considered a hero seems to be constant across different societies and time periods. It is merely the specific pursuits of the individuals personifying the traits that may be different. For example a young boy in America might look up to a baseball player, but the same boy in England might look up to a rugby player, and the same boy in ancient Greece might idolize an Olympic wrestler. Regardless of the pursuit the hero has chosen, it seems several prerequisites are mandatory. In order to be a hero, he must stand out among his peers in his performance. He must convey courage in all circumstances, holding honorable action as his catalyst regardless of the consequences personal to him. He must put forth his greatest effort toward his chosen pursuit. Despite being gifted, a hero must maintain his humility, and treat others as his equals. He must take responsibility for himself and his actions. Lastly, he must in some way also contribute to the society of which he is a part.
Although definitive heroic qualities have remained the same, the excellence of these qualities, and thus the hero’s compulsory superiority over others of lesser skill and character has seen a decline as humanity has evolved over time. The three hundred Spartans at Thermopylae fought valiantly against the multitudes of Persians, and each one willingly laid down his life for his brothers and his country. However, only the king Leonidas had a hero cult erected in his honor in Sparta, because he was on an even higher level in terms of his leadership, fighting prowess, and courage. The same monument, erected today, would be dedicated to all three hundred heroes, even though they were most likely on the same level as the majority of Spartiates. However, this does not signify that today’s heroes and their deeds have been diminished.
The fact of the matter is that the way I have been defining a hero is backwards. It is an absolute description of a figure whose characterization is truly relative. If one were to ask a group of people if the above provided qualities were descriptive of a hero, almost all would say yes. If the same surveyor followed up by asking this group of people to privately provide a list of other qualities, these lists would be as varied as the group of people from which they originated. The lists would include traits determined by the life experiences, culture, and aspirations of the writers. Thus, it can be said that a person is made into a hero by virtue of being acknowledged in that way by either an individual or a society, regardless of whether or not he meets the requirements dictated in a written definition. This is the reason that even though heroic qualities have taken on a broader range, the heroes of today are not diminished compared to the heroes of history. Each individual person, when they admire someone, holds them as exalted and with the same ardor according to their personal definition of a hero as anyone now or before. This is true whether the hero is a great sports star who many agree is a hero, or if it is a boy’s father, who nobody else has ever heard of.
It is common for someone being titled a hero to decline such a title. Read any news article about the great deeds of a soldier, and the most common quote would be about how he was merely doing his duty. This statement would be expected of a hero. Based on the absolute definition provided earlier, one cannot consider themselves a hero, because doing so violates the humility of that person. Despite this, however, they are still heroes based on the relative definition of the writer of the article. In fact, the soldier has no choice in whether or not he is a hero, and is totally subject to whether or not someone else decides he is such. A small child with a disability may witness a wounded veteran with the same disability participating in a running race and immediately consider him a hero, regardless of whether the veteran is aware of it or not, and whether the veteran accepts the title or not.
It is in this way that I have become like Cal Ripken, Jr. I may not be a homer swatting, gold glove winning, Iron Man shortstop for the Baltimore Orioles, but the quality that we both now share is that we are two men that people can look up to and emulate. And although you will never hear me refer to myself as a hero, I have accepted and grown comfortable with the fact that it is feasible for others to see me and other wounded veterans in this way, and that in fact, many do.