What Makes a Hero?

Published: November 16, 2015

By Jim Lichtman
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“A hero has two basic qualities: a selfless devotion to what’s right, whether that’s his duty or not, and the courage of his convictions.” 

– Dale Dye, Marine Captain (Ret.)


In 2012, while fighting in Afghanistan, Army Captain Florent Groberg demonstrated the kind of selfless devotion to duty Dye speaks of when he knowingly rushed a suicide bomber who was approaching a group of his fellow soldiers and Afghans.

As recounted by New York Times reporter Peter Baker (Nov. 13), “Captain Groberg confronted the man. ‘I pushed him as hard as I could, and honestly I just wanted to get him as far away from my guys as possible,’ he said. ‘He had a dead man’s trigger, which means he had already pressed the trigger prior to walking towards us. As he hit the ground chest first, he let go the trigger and he detonated.’

“The explosion set off another bomb nearby, and four Americans died… Pentagon officials said many more would have been killed had Captain Groberg not acted.

“The blast threw Captain Groberg 15 to 20 feet, blew out his eardrum and shattered his leg. ‘It was the worst day of my life because even though we defeated the enemy, I lost four of my brothers,’ he added.”

Last week, in a ceremony at the White House, Capt. Groberg’s noble act earned him the Medal of Honor.

But Capt. Dye’s definition goes beyond physical courage: “…selfless devotion to what’s right, whether that’s his duty or not, and the courage of his convictions.

Sadly, moral courage is much less venerated.

Sgt. Martland, Gen. David Petraeus, Capt. Quinn

Sgt. 1st Class Charles Martland, Gen. David Petraeus, Capt. Daniel Quinn (Stars and Stripes)

CNN reporter Jake Tapper reported (Sept. 28), that Sergeant 1st Class Charles Martland and Captain Daniel Quinn, both part of the elite Green Berets, were relieved of duty in Afghanistan and “…disciplined by the Army after they beat a powerful local police official who they concluded had been raping a small boy. [The two soldiers] say they had been encouraged by higher-ups that there was nothing to do about such horrific acts, that these were Afghan problems for the Afghan authorities to work out.”

However, local authorities did nothing to correct the situation.

“Quinn and Martland were told by a young Afghan boy and his mother, through an Afghan interpreter, that the boy had been tied to a post at the home of Afghan Local Police commander Abdul Rahman and raped repeatedly for up to two weeks,” Tapper reported. “When his mother tried to stop the attacks, they told the soldiers, Rahman’s brother beat her. Quinn says he verified the story with other ALP commanders from neighboring villages. Then they invited Rahman to the camp.

“ ‘After the child rapist laughed it off and referenced that it was only a boy, Captain Quinn picked him up and threw him,’ Martland writes. Martland then proceeded to ‘body slam him multiple times,’ kick him in the rib cage, and put his foot on his neck. ‘I continued to body slam him and throw him for fifty meters until he was outside the camp,’ Martland writes. ‘He was never knocked out, and he ran away from our camp.’

“The incident lasted no more than five minutes, he says.”

In a story that appeared in the U.S. Armed Forces newspaper Stars and Stripes (Oct. 8), Martland said, “I chose the morally right decision because moral law transcends all boundaries and organizations. … We all learned about the moral right during the Penn State football program’s child sex abuse scandal.’

“Martland added that he began facing discipline from the Army beginning in late 2011, around the same time former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky faced charges for raping numerous children and university officials were cited for failing to act on the allegations years earlier. Sandusky ultimately was convicted of 45 counts of sexual abuse.

“ ‘Ironically, I was fighting being kicked out of the Army while watching daily public outrage about the child abuse occurring at Penn State and the leniency in dealing with that issue,’ Martland said. ‘Legal law comes from man is fallible. Although well intentioned, it can fail us at times.’

“Martland was selected to be removed from the Army this year as a result of his actions in Afghanistan four years ago. Army officials said Wednesday they will give him 60 days to file an appeal with the Army Board for the Correction of Military Records after Army Secretary John McHugh met with Thornberry and discussed the issue.

“The decision, first reported by Army Times, gives the soldier a chance to make his case to a panel headed by a one-star general, as the Army faces increasing scrutiny from members of Congress and other critics about its handling of the case.”

In a letter written at the request of California Representative Duncan Hunter, Martland said that he felt “thrust into a situation where I had to make a decision. There was no real right answer and no real wrong answer,” he added. “The morally right action conflicted with the legally right action.”

“ ‘In the end, it’s about the lack of courage and leadership in the U.S. military at the highest levels,’ said Hunter, a former Marine officer. ‘Counterinsurgency means winning the hearts and minds. How do you get the local population to trust you when you’re allowing children to be raped on your bases?’

“Rep. Vern Buchanan, R.-Fla., who has sponsored a resolution with Hunter to have Martland reinstated, said in a letter sent to McHugh on Wednesday that postponing the soldier’s separation is a good start, but the service needs to fully reinstate him.

“ ‘Sgt. Martland is a hero – not a villain – and he should be treated as such,’ Buchanan’s letter said. ‘Driving Sgt. Martland out of the Army for standing up for American values is a national disgrace. It’s bad enough if we were ignoring this type of barbaric and savage behavior, it’s even worse if we are punishing American heroes who try to stop it.’ ”

Quinn voluntarily left the military. In a story by Military.Com (Sept. 23), Sgt. Martland’s appeal was denied.

“The memo to Martland said his appeal was rejected because appeals can only be considered for ‘cases with material error, newly discovered evidence’ or removal of certain documents. The memo says that while the office’s ‘decision is final,’ Martland can still appeal to the Army Board for Correction of Military Records.

“Hunter has asked for Secretary of Defense Ash Carter to get involved, and continues to do so after the Army’s initial decision denying Martland’s appeal.”

How do you maintain morale much less a standard of moral decency in the face of such resistance?


  1. I am pleased that Jim recounted the story of our servicemen relieved from duty and separated because they intervened in the rape of children in Afghanistan. I had mentioned this case to him a few weeks ago as an egregious violation of personal ethics. That superior officers would state: “we shouldn’t get involved in their national customs and traditions” was disgraceful and it hurts to realize that people like (just retired) Joint Chief Chairman General Martin Dempsey (Army) did not step up, intervene and prevent this travesty is even more disappointing. Even in war there are ethics and when we have an All-Volunteer fighting force, the troops need all the support they can get. Leaders need to lead, not hide from the truth.

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