This past Memorial Day weekend, the nation was shocked by the clumsy comments of an MSNBC host who said he was "uncomfortable" with the notion of calling fallen U.S. soldiers heroes. While it was breathtakingly inappropriate, the central stupidity of the statement lay in the timing, not the essence, of the comment. Since it's on that one day, Memorial Day, that we stop not to adjudicate whether each and every fallen soldier is a hero or not, but to honor the spirit of American sacrifice and those who make it.
But despite this, the question of heroism is not just relevant to the American dialog, it's critical. Who is a hero to us today? What does it mean to be one or for us to call someone, who is sometimes called upon to kill, to be one? After all, a hero is not a static thing. It changes as our values change. And our values change as it changes. The question deserves an answer.
In the framework of the American military, we naturally look to the very best for this answer. After the killing of Osama bin Laden (the very worst of America's enemies) we've come to identify the best as SEAL Team SIX, also known as DEVGRU.
America has long known about the exceptional skill, endurance and devotion of this elite group of Navy SEALs. We have, at times, gone too far in this lyricism, making SEAL Team SIX into a kind of G.I. Joe ultimate warrior. The guy who can do it all. Who's tough. Who knows weapons. Who swims with a knife in his teeth!
But who is the SEAL Team SIX "operator?" What's he actually like: Stone-cold killer who delights in his lethal abilities? Or something else? Something that gives the notion of hero both more depth and more nuance. Maybe for the first time, we have the beginnings of an answer.
In Fearless, a new book by Eric Blehm, author of the NYT Bestseller The Only Thing Worth Dying For, we're offered one of the first real human portraits of a DEVGRU member, Adam Brown, one of the most remarkable men in the history of the unit. With Blehm's characteristic no-frills style, which expertly (and humbly) allows him to recede while the story and its characters rise off the page, we get a picture of a SEAL Team SIX member as a man, as a human being.
Adam Brown was born into a working class American family in Arkansas in the mid-70s. Hit by the recession of the early-1980s, his family picked up roots so Brown's father, Larry, could find work as an electrician in Montana. Despite their unsettled lifestyle, Blehm writes that Larry and Janice Brown ensured that family was put first -- that the kids were involved in sports, did well in school, and always had a real sense of home.
We learn that Adam was instantly a standout, dashing around, jumping off things that really shouldn't be jumped off of (e.g. a jeep driving at speed on a highway bridge into a river), and pushing himself harder than any kid around. On the high school football field he was indefatigable. Despite being, in the words of a coach, "an itty bitty kid...all helmet," he would demand going up against the biggest linebackers in the Alley Drill, in which two players drove into each other until one was flattened.
Adam, being all helmet, was invariably flattened. And, invariably, he'd come up shouting, "Let's go again! You want some more of me?" In the words of his coach: "That one little sophomore taught our whole team more about character in a few minutes than any of us coaches could have in an entire season."
His tenacity was impressive, inspiring, even. And yet, it wasn't on the football field where Brown really distinguished himself. It was far off it. Blehm recounts a revealing story:
[When he was in 8th grade] Adam was hanging out with friends in front of the school one morning when a school bus pulled up and students poured out. Most of the kids headed to the front doors, but three boys stopped Richie Holden, who had Down syndrome, and taunted him by calling him names. Smaller than any of the bullies, Adam nevertheless marched over and stood in front of Richie. 'If you want to pick on someone,' he said, 'you can pick on me -- if you think you're big enough.'
"The three backed off,' Richie's father Dick Holden, says...'Adam put his arm around Richie and walked with him through the door, then all the way to his class. Richie never forgot that, and I remember thinking, "That Brown boy -- he's something special."'
If the story seems in any way insignificant, we should remember what it takes for an undersized 13-year-old kid to not just stand up to his own bullies, but to take a stand against the bullies on behalf of someone weaker than himself. How easy it would have been -- how easy it is -- to stand by and snicker, or to quietly disapprove, or, going even farther, to simply call from a safe distance for the bullies to "Cut it out." But that's not what Adam Brown did -- because that's not who Adam Brown was.
Fast forward a little less than a decade and we find Adam in the most unlikely of places: a crack den, addicted to the horrible drug, his life spinning completely out of control. It was during this period, Blehm writes, that Brown reached depths so low that all but a few family members had given up any hope for a recovery.
But those few -- notably his parents, Janice and Larry, who, after taking him to rehab and giving him every other chance to turn things around, eventually had him arrested -- saved his life. In this case, it was faith that brought Adam back from a period he came to call "his dark time." His parents reconnected with their faith, and Adam developed his own spiritual connection. It was only then that Brown decided to be a SEAL.
It's a critical point. Brown's decision came from within, not from wanting to be a hero. It wasn't a process driven by vanity -- a process that is all too common in an America that's increasingly obsessed by images of itself. Adam had already seen the depths of himself; he'd known himself at his worst. His decision, which was made with the help of one of his closest friends, and reinforced by his future wife, Kelley, was to rise from his worst to his best.
In the Navy, Brown seems almost to blow through SEAL training. No doubt, Blehm gives a good sense of what it's like to wake up every day at three in the morning and get out of a warm bed only subject yourself to being "sugar cookied" (jumping in the cold Pacific surf then rolling around in the sand), among other SEAL delicacies.
But, again, what comes through in the narrative is not so much the lock-and-load account of what it's like to be in the SEAL screening course, BUD/S, but the sacrifices made by Brown's wife, Kelley, who woke with him at 3am to make him breakfast then drive him 45 minutes to Coronado Island while he slept, only to return to start her own day of work.
Together, the Browns get through BUD/S. Adam becomes a SEAL, doing some thing you really wouldn't believe are possible. He overcomes unbelievable challenges, like losing the sight of his dominant eye. (And, in this, calls to mind another American hero who lost site in his eye and simply carried on: Teddy Roosevelt).
Brown shocks the most elite of the most elite soldiers in the world with his ability to overcome. Again and again, we see Brown leaping over seemingly insurmountable hurdles: he loses an eye and somehow manages to continue through his upward trajectory towards SEAL Team SIX. He loses use of his shooting hand, and stays his path. His commanders cannot believe what he's able to accomplish, since no one before had ever accomplished anything like it.
It's certainly fascinating, and bracingly inspiring, to read about Brown's ability to overcome. And yet, just as with his football days, that's not what stands out. What gets best remembered is the story of Brown in Afghanistan, a full-fledged member of SEAL Team SIX, writing to his wife Kelley and his parents that they shouldn't send him anything in his care packages. Rather, he said, send shoes.
Brown couldn't stand the site of seeing Afghan children going barefoot as winter approached. So he went door-to-door, the 6'1'' elite soldier, taking children's shoe sizes and relaying them back Stateside, where his parents and his wife would buy them, or ask friends and fellow church-goers to do so, and then send them back to Brown, who delivered them by hand.
Blehm quotes a Green Beret colleague of Brown's recalling Adam's shoe campaign:
Here we are, packing extra ammo and grenades when we went outside the wire and Adam was stuffing his ruck with shoes, knocking on doors in the villages, keeping track of their sizes on a notepad and telling them all that more were on the way. He's got his weapon slung and on his knees in the dirt, helping kids who have never tied a shoe in their life. This is a war zone, and he's passing out shoes.
It's here where Brown stands out -- not just in this one instance, but again and again doing for others what he once did for young Richie Holden. And it's in this deeper look at Brown's personality that we have some recourse to the initial question of heroism.
Looking to Brown who was, by definition, the best, we get a clearer picture of the concept of the American hero today. It lies not just in the pursuit of excellence, nor in the nearly godlike ability to overcome, but in the core value of doing what's right simply because it's right and without thought (at least not enough thought to prevent action) for what might befall one's own self.
Blehm called his book Fearless, and while Brown told his wife that he had a "gift" of not really feeling fear, we see that his fearlessness sprung from his absolute faith in doing what is right and fighting what is wrong.
Brown, by Blehm's account, was universally admired by his military colleagues. Even those who met him and initially didn't like him were won over by his dedication and his unwavering sense of justice. The respect for him came from an inner respect for these two qualities on the part of America's top soldiers.
But we see not just in the respect and admiration for Brown's heroism felt by his fellow soldiers, but in the respect and admiration Brown ignites in the reader, that there is a true idea of American heroism alive today.
The question of heroism is by no means definitively answered. It never can be. Heroism creates and recreates itself in its own moment. What we learn from this book, and from the life of Adam Brown, is that there are those rare few who live life moment after moment for the good of something greater. Those are the people we call heroes.
Fearless: The Undaunted Courage and Ultimate Sacrifice of Navy SEAL Team SIX Operator Adam Brown by Eric Blehm, Waterbrook Press $21.99