In praise of Ebola heroes

As one who never had the opportunity to serve in the military, much less in a combat capacity, I really identified with the opening of Richard Cohen’s column today:

A man my age grows up wondering: Could I have hit the beach at Normandy? How would I have handled being trapped near the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea, thousands of Chinese pouring over the border and a bitter winter coming on fast? What about Vietnam, or later Iraq and then Afghanistan and Iraq again? I come not from the Greatest Generation but the Wondering One — lucky, a reaper of what others have sown…

By the way, I suspect that the answer for me to the first question is, Yes, I could have hit the beach at Normandy, although I don’t know that. I like to think I could work up the momentary physical courage to do that, just running on pure adrenaline. I might have even made it to the top of the bluff, assuming I survived and could keep the presence of mind to remember why I was there. What I very much doubt I could have done was get through the whole Normandy campaign — much less the fighting across Europe, especially the frozen siege of Bastogne — without cracking. The living-in-foxholes thing would have done me in.

Of course, I don’t know, do I? I might have shot myself in the foot on the day before D-Day.

But that’s not the point of his column. He was leading up to this:

…and now, jaw agape, I wonder about health workers who leave the comforts and certainties of the United States and go to Africa to treat Ebola patients. Who are these people?

Some of them, it seems, are deeply religious. Certainly this is the case with Kent Brantly, who contracted Ebola in Liberia and was flown back to the United States for treatment. He survived, testified before Congress, waswelcomed to the White House by President Obama and aw-shucked his considerable courage by invoking God. I envy his faith. I am in awe of his courage….

The piece ended:

“Giving back” has become a trite cliche, uttered by celebrities coached by their PR aides. But there are people who actually do it — not just with money or a photo op playing ball with some kids but by giving their time and, even, their very lives. I want all of them assembled at the White House, as is done for the Super Bowl champs, or marched down Broadway in a blizzard of ticker tape, or merely remanded to our individual places of honor — nagging consciences asking nagging questions: Why them? Why not us?

Amen to that. I’m reminded of this passage from Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court:

There was a slight noise from the direction of the dim corner where the ladder was.  It was the king descending.  I could see that he was bearing something in one arm, and assisting himself with the other.  He came forward into the light; upon his breast lay a slender girl of fifteen.  She was but half conscious; she was dying of smallpox.  Here was heroism at its last and loftiest possibility, its utmost summit; this was challenging death in the open field unarmed, with all the odds against the challenger, no reward set upon the contest, and no admiring world in silks and cloth of gold to gaze and applaud; and yet the king’s bearing was as serenely brave as it had always been in those cheaper contests where knight meets knight in equal fight and clothed in protecting steel.  He was great now; sublimely great.  The rude statues of his ancestors in his palace should have an addition—I would see to that; and it would not be a mailed king killing a giant or a dragon, like the rest, it would be a king in commoner’s garb bearing death in his arms that a peasant mother might look her last upon her child and be comforted…


6 thoughts on “In praise of Ebola heroes

  1. Bryan Caskey

    Excellent post. You make a very good point about how the valor and glory that is so celebrated in courage in the face of the enemy doesn’t translate to courage in fighting a disease in a humanitarian mission.

    Which sort of makes it even more noble – lacking the recognition.

    Also reminds me of how the CIA only has the stars on their wall for the officers who die in the line of duty – no names.

    1. O

      Bryan, Great to meet you yesterday afternoon. Jimmy is a great friend and I know you enjoy working with him.

  2. barry

    There are a folks like this out there- but they don’t seek praise- or recognition- and would turn it down if it was given.

    I could give an example of someone from my own church that has devoted her entire life and career to doing just that- helping folks that can’t pay her back and wouldn’t know how to pay her back – but she’d likely be upset at me for even mentioning it.

    Good article.

  3. Kathryn Fenner

    I would have been a disaster on a war front–sensory overload and all, but I *am* one of those people who run toward a bad situation to see if I can help, rather than away. As I have matured, I first try to discern if I *can* actually help. Helping others feels good.

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