The harrowing rescue of the Thai soccer team reminds us of a simple truth: heroes are all around us. It is an easy truth to forget; villains—or those we are told should be the villains—ordinarily get the best coverage, and the whole world sometimes seems a dark reflection of what it once was. We are left feeling helpless in response—that the institutions designed to facilitate order now seem designed only to facilitate themselves, leaving us to our own devices in the moments most dire.
But the heroes are there, and they appear not because they are paid to be there, or because they can count on instant celebrity (hundreds of heroes emerged in Thailand; the average person knows none of their names, and some—like the SEALs active and retired—operated with the certainty of anonymity. They did the right thing, the dangerous thing, in one case the self-sacrificial thing, because it is what needed to be done).
The Heroes of the Cajun Navy
I live in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In 2016, a “once-in-a-millennium” flood beset my part of the state. It came unexpected—the storm had no name, no warning, even. It just showed up, sometimes a downpour, sometimes a drizzle, and it did not stop, and by the time the clouds parted, over seven trillion gallons of water had fallen. Three times that of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans. But Baton Rouge is not New Orleans, the latter city by far the more prosperous, colorful, and culturally significant. So when the floods came and almost 150,000 homes were damaged or destroyed and thousands were relocated to shelters, it felt from here like the world was ending, and that nobody noticed.
Enter the heroes. Hundreds of local fishermen, and notably a large contingent of military veterans, hitched their fishing boats to trailers and drove toward the flooding. When the roads got too deep with water, they unlatched the boats, strapped on life preservers, and organized a spontaneous water rescue effort. What made the flooding especially pernicious was its unpredictability. The whole of Louisiana is an elaborate spiderweb of waterways; the intensity of rain didn’t determine when an area might flood; some bayou or some canal several parishes over might finally spill over, flooding another, and another, like liquid dominoes, until suddenly an area that had never before flooded, was underwater, just like that, in the dead of night. And there was the Cajun navy, its impromptu communications grid running, radioing to those boatmen and women in areas of immediate danger to begin evacuations. Boats would zip house to house, families pulled from windows or rescued from rooftops. And countless lives were saved.
How Hurricane Harvey Raised an Army
Ours wasn’t the only flood to find former veterans among the rescue effort. In Houston, where Hurricane Harvey caused devastating flooding, a former Marine raised an army of almost 200 veterans to lead a rescue effort. “I called a couple of guys and said, ‘We should go help. It doesn’t look like they were ready for this,’” he said in an interview. He built his rescue force almost overnight, and the crew descended upon Houston to provide boats, emergency supplies, rescue services, and the sort of tenacious, hands-dirty manpower necessary to push through any physically and psychologically taxing crisis. Why do it? There’s no money in it, no fame. It’s literally all downside for rescuers. And yet… there they are.
Military-Trained First Responders
Heroes are everywhere. Military veterans have become the backbone of an organic, American network of first responders. We speak often of “spin-off technologies” that come from investments in defense and aerospace. These days the most consequential spin-off of the war on terror are the men and women trained to think on their feet and handle life-or-death situations with instinctive grace—to, indeed, run headlong into danger—not recklessly, but mindful of the perils ahead but competent in fluid situations.
When shooters entered schools in Florida and Oregon, veterans were among the dead or injured—veterans who raced toward the incoming fire. Chris Hixon, a Navy vet, died trying to disarm the killer who entered a Florida high school. Chris Mintz, an Army infantry veteran, alerted and directed students clear of the danger, confronted the gunman to save a class, took fire, and while bleeding, tried even reasoning with the gunman who unleashed on an Oregon college.
International Poachers Face a New Threat: American Veterans
In Africa, where poachers threaten to run rhinos, lions, and other endangered species to extinction, former U.S. special operations soldiers have organized anti-poaching efforts—a “Conservation Rainbow Six”—training others in night operations, psychological operations campaigns, and even directly engaging poachers, who are themselves an insidious enemy—part of the local population, funded mysteriously, well armed, and determined. Who else but Army Rangers could be qualified to perform such a feat?
Under Fire? A Veteran Can Handle the Heat
The nation has noticed. Western states now actively pursue veterans returning from war, citing the sense of purpose and camaraderie of rescue work. Wildfires devastate the landscape and local communities, and in recent years have risen in number. Veterans of all specialties are needed to fight the 250 annual wildfires. Engineers, mechanics, fuelers—everyone necessary to keep a war running are needed to fight this very different kind of battle. Even former paratroopers are wanted to jump into the inferno and dig trenches and clear debris to stop the fires from spreading, or to redirect them elsewhere. In a catastrophe, who else can you count on?
Team Rubicon is perhaps the best known and best organized of the veteran disaster response teams. In an interview last year with ClearanceJobs, David Burke, vice president of programs and field operations for Team Rubicon, perhaps put it best: “The reason veterans are uniquely suited to serve after disasters, or in preparation of long term recovery from disasters, is that every veteran of the current conflict—the post-9/11 veteran—has volunteered to serve. They raised their right hand completely voluntarily. That volunteerism, that sense of service, doesn’t disappear after you take the uniform off.”
That sense of duty is not exclusive to the United States. The name of the Thai Navy SEAL who died rescuing the soccer team is Saman Kunan. His death occurred during an operation to place oxygen containers along the rescue route. After successfully emplacing them, he ran out of air on the swim back to safety. He was retired. His country and the trapped children needed his expertise, and he gave them all. It is, after all, what heroes do.