Nov. 12, 2012— -- What is a hero? Or, better, what makes a hero? We all know about the Hollywood heroes ... they rush into trouble to save those they love. They risk their lives for others and sometimes lose their own.
Is self-sacrifice in the face of mortal danger our guide? If so, there are hundreds of thousands of heroes in our military. In fact, just being a soldier, Marine, sailor or in the Air Force would make one a hero. I should add the Coast Guard as well. Maybe that's the way it should be.
Or, is a hero born out of a single act of bravery -- a sudden character-testing incident in the heat of battle? Those I know in the military would argue that that's what training is all about -- doing what you need to protect others and stay alive.
Perhaps there should be a moral test. I know some people who believe Islamic fundamentalist suicide bombers are heroes. What is our moral guide to heroism?
In Iraq, during the height of the war, al Qaeda would pay $50 to anyone who would dig a hole in the road. The next taker would plant the explosives, another fill in the hole and others would continue until an "improvised explosive device" was created. Often those who helped were fathers desperate for money to feed and care for their families.
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Gen. Peter Chiarelli, at the time in charge of the day-to-day battle in Iraq, saw this and believed these IED makers would "do the right thing," given the opportunity. His mission became to create jobs.
Eventually, many of those fathers did the right thing. They took jobs, often working for the military, and at a fraction of what they'd get for digging holes and planting explosives.
They knew they could be killed, or their families killed, for working on projects funded by the United States, but despite the mortal danger, one by one they pulled their country out of an orgy of violence.
Are these former bomb makers' heroes?
If a single act of bravery can make someone a hero how about doing nothing? I have seen remarkable restraint many, many times in Iraq and in Afghanistan. An unseen bullet or bomb would take a life of a young soldier. Their comrades knew the locals around them either took part in the attack or knew who did. They had the courage to do nothing.
"We're killing and capturing a lot of bad guys," a general once told me. "The real question is -- are we creating them faster than we can kill 'em"?
So, those soldiers who watched one of their friends die one minute had to control their fury the next as they watched those who, in some way, may have killed their friend. Retribution would only create "more bad guys." In that moment in time they did nothing. Is that an act of heroism?
However you define a hero they continue to frame how we think about ourselves. What would we do if we were them? This brings us to the provocative case of Sgt. Jamie Jarboe.
Siah Choy is at the center of the heart of the Taliban. This is where an awkward young check point commander, Omar, grew up to be the spiritual leader of one of the most violent Muslim fundamentalist movements in modern times.
Here, the high plains dirt and dust of Southern Afghanistan end abruptly at the Arghendhab River. It's an unlikely place for a jungle. The water gives life to the land and its lush, overgrown riverbanks provide cover for fighters and equipment making their way to the former Taliban capital of Kandahar. This is where Staff Sgt. Jamie Jarboe was shot.
'Just Follow Me'
He was just short of his 27th birthday and already a veteran of three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. On a mission with Alpha Company of the 4th Squadron of the 4th Cavalry Regiment, Staff Sgt. Jarboe had just cleared up some confusion in the field by declaring the mission over and giving the command, "Just follow me."
A sniper was watching and waiting. The next split-second would change everything.
There's a small unprotected space between every soldier's helmet and the body armor covering their shoulders. That's where the bullet struck.
Jarboe later told columnist Tom Sileo of unknownsoldiersblog.com that "the scariest part was when I realized what happened ... the blood was soaking my clothes. ... I remember looking at my hand and it wouldn't move."
Jarboe had been married for just over two months. He'd called his wife the night before, convinced he would not make it home. He and his soldiers were fighting for their lives, every day.
"He made a promise to come home to the kids and I," says his wife Melissa.
Jarboe had embraced his new family, Melissa and daughters Celestial and Alexa.
"We were focused on having a little boy to carry on the Jarboe name," Melissa told me. "We wanted to take the kids to Disney World. We wanted to live the American dream."
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In the interview with Sileo, just over a year ago, Jarboe said that as he lay on the ground staring up at the sky he thought about his wife and two children.
"If I'm going to succumb to these wounds then it will be on my own terms ... I'm not dying out here," he said.
It was the beginning of a remarkable journey.
Two days later he was at Walter Reed Medical Center in Maryland.
"His first words were I love you," says Melissa, then, "Don't leave me."
She didn't. Jarboe lived for another 11 months. His wife, Melissa, his constant companion.
Paralyzed from the chest down, he fought to stay alive. In between time with his wife and daughters he endured more than 100 procedures and surgeries.
The soldiers of 4/4 came home in February, 10 months after Jarboe was shot. It was an emotional reunion.
"He was happy," recounts Melissa. "He smiled ear to ear, he missed them so much."
But two days later, according to his wife, "he started coding."
His heart stopped and started; his lungs collapsed.
"They told us he was terminal, but we wanted to keep fighting," she says.
Jarboe told her he was "not ready to die."
Later that week, according to Melissa, "everything started to shut down."
Jarboe told her, "We have only one choice... Get a piece of paper and a pencil."
Then, according to Melissa, "We started going over everything he wanted us to do ... for his soldiers, for his children and for myself and never once did he cry."
Melissa paused during our conversation then, in a smaller voice, said, "I cried for a couple of days until he told me to stop."
That private moment when two people who love each other face death will remain private. Melissa says that for a few months she couldn't remember details from those last precious moments. It's starting to come back.
"I remember how strong he was," she says. "I remember how much he loved me and how he would smile when I walked into the room."
Jamie Jarboe lived and died on his own terms. But it is how he chose to die that makes us look deep inside ourselves.
He continues to be a hero, "every day" to his family and his soldiers, Melissa says.
She devotes much of her time to The Jamie Jarboe Foundation, dedicated to helping and honoring wounded soldiers.
Jarboe's medical care could be characterized, in the most charitable way, as unfortunate. Melissa is fighting for better medical care for "wounded warriors" but is not bitter.
"I'm putting all the love and admiration I have for him into everyone around me," she says. "It helps me heal and helps me become a better person."
Jamie Jarboe's list is something he only shared with his wife, but she did reveal his last request.
"He made me promise to love again," she says.
In the last few days of Jarboe's life, the nurses asked him if he regretted his service. If he had to do it all over again, would he join the military, go to Iraq and Afghanistan?
Melissa said her husband didn't hesitate: "I have no regrets. I love the military. I love my country. I'd take that bullet again."
Melissa says she can't complain either.
"He came home to me," she says.