This Is a Time for Everyday Heroes
“Not all heroes wear capes.” This Veterans Day, I have a new spin on that popular saying: Not all American heroes wear camouflage.
I appreciate the high regard most Americans have for us veterans in the post-9/11 era, but the strength of our country depends on patriots of all kinds. Every citizen has to be invested in the success of our democracy, not just those in the warrior class. And I definitely didn’t deploy to Iraq twice to defend this country, our Constitution, and our ideals abroad, just to watch us become vulnerable to tyranny here at home.
But that’s exactly what I feel I’m witness to these days.
Our elections are being tampered with by both foreign and domestic actors. Our military is at times exploited to achieve political goals. And the very citizens we rely on to hold our government to account — reporters — are called the enemy.
This is a time where we can’t just rely on the few, the proud, America. This is a time for everyday heroes. And it’s far from the first time.
Before he became a civil rights icon, Rep. John Lewis was just the son of Alabama sharecroppers who enrolled at Fisk University in the late 1950s. Inspired by the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Lewis began to organize sit-ins at lunch counters while he was at college in Nashville to protest segregation in public accommodations. These protests were non-violent, but violation of the Jim Crow laws that ruled the South warranted arrest. Lewis’ relentless pursuit of justice from that point on was sadly also rewarded with severe beatings at the hands of angry mobs.
Can you imagine, however, if John Lewis got to college and only cared about getting ahead?
The path Congressman Lewis chose to walk isn’t for everyone. I sure am grateful that, he didn’t let Jim Crow intimidate him and, as a teenager, cared more about our country moving forward than himself.
In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg was an obscure researcher at the RAND Corporation, but his place in history was solidified when the Pentagon Papers were published. In violation of his security clearance, and with the help of his children, Ellsberg photocopied thousands of pages of a classified study that made clear that the U.S. government deceived Congress and the American people about the case for going to war in Vietnam. He fully expected to go to prison for life for leaking the documents to the New York Times and Washington Post, but to him it was worth that consequence.
If Daniel Ellsberg didn’t have the guts to follow his conscience, how long do you think it would have taken for us to know the truth?
58,220 Americans were killed in Vietnam. Ellsberg never did go to jail, but without his willingness to risk that possible fate, who knows how many more lives would have been lost. It’s entirely possible that we’d be naive to this day about how the Johnson administration “systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress” about Vietnam.
Years before John Lewis began his fight for justice and Daniel Ellsberg solidified his place in our history books, a little known hero became skeptical of Joseph McCarthy’s campaign against alleged communists in our government. The son of a Philadelphia grocery store owner, Murrey Marder was an up-and-coming reporter at the Washington Post when he got assigned to the so-called “Red Beat.” A man of principle, he decided early on that he wasn’t going to just blindly amplify McCarthy’s theatrical pursuit of our enemies within. Rather, Marder was determined to fully scrutinize the senator’s claims and followed his every word closely for four years.
Marder’s diligent reporting of McCarthy’s actions was in many ways also a sole pursuit. Countless other journalists bought into the senator’s fear-mongering, but Marder saw through the charade when he claimed a ring of communist spies had infiltrated the Army during a field hearing at Ft. Monmouth, New Jersey. It turns out that there was no evidence to substantiate McCarthy’s headline-making charges, and in a series of stories, Marder exposed the facts and effectively laid the groundwork for the 1954 congressional hearings that ultimately brought the senator down.
McCarthy very well could have met his fate in some other way, but one has to wonder how long it would have taken if a committed journalist didn’t have the courage and determination to go after the truth.
The health of our nation has always depended on ordinary citizens with extraordinary courage. A fact that’s worth remembering on not just one day, but every day.
This Veterans Day, look to us veterans not just as heroes, but as an example. It doesn’t take a uniform to defend our Constitution or fight for a more perfect union.
Allison Jaslow is an Iraq War veteran, a dedicated public servant, and an advocate for the views and experiences of combat veterans and their families. A former Army captain, Jaslow is also a seasoned political and communications strategist, serving on the staff of several members of Congress, as a White House communications aide, and most recently as the Executive Director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). She’s term-member on the Council of Foreign Relations and serves on the Board of the Center for Law and Military Policy. She can be found on Twitter @jaslow.
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