By Norris Burkes Nov 15 2020
This past week as I enjoyed my free Veterans Day meal at a local restaurant, I couldn’t help but shy away from the word hero that emblazoned the restaurant signage.
I think most people who served their county feel as I do. We were asked to do a job that we often did with routine regularity. That point was hammered home one day as I made my regular chaplain morale visits inside the Military Personnel Office at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
On this base where they launch rockets, I entered a typical Air Force office section to find most of the 30 airmen hard at work. Their supervisor, a chief master sergeant, stepped out from behind his desk to greet me.
His mannerisms were cordial and professional, befitting the highest enlisted rank in the military. Chief master sergeant is a rank that subordinates will sometimes nickname “god.” So, you can see how I might have assumed that our conversation would be absolutely no-nonsense — an assumption quickly disproven when a second lieutenant stepped into our impromptu meeting.
To understand what happened next, you need to know that the lieutenant and I technically outranked the chief. However, his 25-plus years of experience easily outranked our rookie status.
“L-T!” the chief said, pronouncing each letter of the abbreviation for lieutenant.
The man stiffened in his polished shoes. “What can I do for you, Chief?” he asked.
“Well, for starters,” the Chief boomed, “you can tell me just what in the hell you have done for your country today!”
The lieutenant wavered in the face of what seemed to be a public upbraiding, but the glint in the chief’s eye told me that this was a comic routine, a regular part of their snappy repartee.
While I don’t remember the lieutenant’s exact words, I believe his hyperbolic intent is best expressed in a dialogue like this:
“Chief, in selfless service to my country today, I have thrown myself on two grenades, knocked out a machine gun nest and singlehandedly rescued three airmen from a burning building.”
The chief smiled at the lieutenant’s chutzpah. He knew, of course, that the L-T had done none of that. But more importantly, he also knew that the lieutenant was learning a valuable truth about work: Heroism isn’t always measured by an individual’s dramatic and drastic deeds.
The heroism of doing one’s daily job is rarely romantic or adventurous. The grit is in the details. Mundane tasks sometimes are accomplished only through tireless work for many thankless hours.
Helen Keller best expressed this heroic truth when she said, “I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble.”
Then, as if thinking of folks like this lowly lieutenant, she added, “The world is moved along not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker.”
The chief had one last satirical question for the lieutenant.
“Is that all you’ve done the live-long day, L-T?”
“No, Chief. I’ve also completed and filed the weekly personnel report, finished the commander’s PowerPoint presentation, and to top it all off, I filled a cup for the mandatory random drug screen.”
I looked at the L-T and then back at the chief. Both seemed to be holding their breath.
“Now, that is impressive,” the chief master sergeant boomed. “Carry on, L-T!”
With that, the L-T smirked, giving us all “permission to laugh.”
If you want to read more about military heroes, download a free chapter from my new book, “Hero’s Highway – A chaplain’s journey toward forgiveness in a combat hospital.” It’s available for sale on my website or at Amazon.com.