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Their stories are like those of the soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen who came before them:

Flying where anti-aircraft gunners can take a pop at you. Racing through a hail of bullets to pull a wounded friend to safety. Just staying with someone in what might be their last moments on Earth.

Are they heroes? What is a hero?

Servicemembers in the field had a lot of definitions to offer, but a recurring theme was not needing or wanting praise.

“A hero is the kid that signs up to serve his nation and to do those things that are unpopular [and] which his nation requires of him,” said Marine Corps Capt. Andrew “Del” Del Gaudio, with the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment operating near Fallujah in recent weeks.

“He will endure any hardship for his comrades, to include giving his life for others. He doesn’t want to be thanked for a job well done, he only wants to be with his comrades on the left or the right performing the mission.”

“A hero is someone who does the right thing in spite of adversity,” said Spc. Ian Johnson, a medic with 2nd Battalion, 8th Field Artillery, 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division out of Fort Lewis, Wash.

“It’s doing what is right when everything is against you, doing what is morally right in spite of peer pressure.

“If we had more people like that in the Army, stuff like Abu Ghraib would never have happened.”

One night while conducting a traffic control point in the flatlands south of Mosul, a couple of soldiers from Battery C, 2nd Battalion, 8th Field Artillery, 1st Brigade, 25 Infantry Division offered a few insights on heroism.

Many felt that volunteering to do their job makes them heroes.

“I think every soldier makes a hero,” said Spc. Nathan Meyers, 24. “From private E-1 all the way up to ‘General Whoever-It-Might-Be.’ We volunteered to give up so many things to do what we are doing, friends, family, free time.”

Other than his absence, it’s a sacrifice that won’t directly affect his wife, Amanda, for example, he said. “We’re trying to stabilize this country, get rid of terrorists from afar and local terrorists. I don’t feel we’re out here to protect the United States. Everything we’re doing, we’re doing for this country.

“It’s an unselfish act.”

Pfc. Damian Pete, 23, wasn’t as sure.

“Good question. What the hell is a hero? I just know that I’ve never met one.”

Pete and Meyers, both field artillery crewmembers, get to talking a little to pass time in the darkened desert. They talk of the $82 billion funding supplemental, and whether Pete will be able to get a new flak vest instead of wearing one that not only is a hand-me-down, but held together in one spot with string.

They speak of the hellhole that is this part of Iraq.

“This sucks,” Pete said. “I want to go home. I have a son.”

His 2-year-old son, Camree, lives on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in South Dakota with his great-grandmother, abandoned by his mother.

“I can’t wait to get back to make up for lost time,” Pete said. He wants custody of Camree and to bring him back to his home base of Fort Lewis.

“You’re gonna be a single dad — in the Army?” Meyers asks, incredulous. “See now, that’s a hero right there.”

Professor Charles A. Smith of the School of Family Studies and Human Services at Kansas State University teaches children about courage and heroism.

In his seminars on heroism, Smith uses the following criteria: the person recognizes the risk or sacrifice; he commits himself fully to a noble goal; he manages fear; and he makes smart decisions.

Would a true hero ever seek attention after the act? Smith doesn’t think so.

“Those who engage in heroic action never see what they did as especially noteworthy. They are always uncomfortable with public recognition and often feel unworthy of acclaim.

“Why? Because their action feels so natural, so much a part of who they are that it carries a sense of obligation,” he said.

Are athletes heroes?What about athletes? Do professional athletes take on significant risk or make great personal sacrifices? Are their goals noble?

Jesse Owens suffered the indignities of the day as a black athlete and went into the belly of the racist beast in Hitler’s Berlin in 1936 and emerged with four gold medals.

Red Sox slugger Ted Williams gave up five prime years to be a fighter pilot in the Korean War.

Buffalo Bills offensive lineman Bob Kalsu quit the team after his 1968 rookie season to serve in the Vietnam War. He was killed in action in 1970.

Then there’s Pat Tillman.

In the spring of 2002, soon after his honeymoon, Tillman informed the Arizona Cardinals that he was going to place his NFL career on hold and become a U.S. Army Ranger with his brother, Kevin.

He turned down a three-year, $3.6 million contract to become a Ranger, and spoke briefly with the media about the decision.

“At times like this you stop and think about just how good we have it, what kind of system we live in, and the freedoms we are allowed. A lot of my family has gone and fought in wars and I really haven’t done a damn thing.”

Tillman never again made himself available for interviews. He was killed in a friendly-fire incident in the mountains of Afghanistan in 2004.

Is he a hero for giving up a career most young men dream of?

Childhood friend Benjamin Hill said “absolutely,” but for more reasons than just that.

“The statements that he made through his choices and actions — in all aspects of his life — are examples of one who is on a constant quest for self-improvement, has the confidence to make choices that are true to his convictions regardless of public opinion, and serve as examples of how to live a life to be admired.

“Pat was an absolutely awesome friend,” Hill said. “To me the combination of his ambition, drive, successes and choices make him a great person, but the way he treated his family, friends and loved ones make him a hero to me.”

Johnson didn’t follow the Tillman saga closely, but he arrived at the same conclusion.

“I suppose he fills my definition of what makes a hero. He put away the easy life, and making tons of money, to do what he thought was right.

“Assuming he was good in all aspects of his life, that’s the kind of guy we need, the kind that get more involved in their community.”

Doing their partStripes interviewed several troops in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, when the media was overplaying the word hero every chance it got.

“I feel like I’m doing my part,” said Army Sgt. Julia Pilat, a civil affairs specialist. “I think the term ‘hero’ is overused.”

Pilat, a reservist, spoke on her last day in Afghanistan. She was due to return to her job as a 10th-grade social studies teacher at Beacon High School in Beacon, New York.

“There are thousands of soldiers over here doing their job, and that’s what it is — a job,” she said. “There are heroes amongst us, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not the group.”

‘Fulfilling the duty’Not far from where she stood is the Air Force compound at Bagram, the next stop on this quest to better understand heroism.

The center of activity is the building that includes administrative offices, squadron rooms and, of course, the air traffic control tower.

Air Force Staff Sgt. Chris Veilleux, a reservist from Spokane, Wash., with the 94th Security Forces Squadron, weighed in on the issue as well.

“If you charge a machine-gun nest,” Veilleux said as he stood guard outside, “you’re a hero. The rest of us are just doing our job.”

In the end, it’s really about purity of purpose.

Air Force Tech. Sgt. William Lanier agrees.

Like Veilleux, Lanier is a reservist with the 94th Security Forces Squadron, based at Dobbins Air Force Base, Ga.

A hero, Lanier said, “is somebody who does something without any benefit to themselves. They just react without thinking what they’ll get out of it.

“It’s not about a damn medal.”

Stripes in 7

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