Hero is a word that is bestowed all too lightly these days. Pandering politicians are prone to describe the entire roster of the armed forces of the United States as heroes when, in fact, most of them are just trying to do their job and stay alive, while a sad few are failures who should have never enlisted in the first place.
But this weekend on a train heading from Amsterdam to Paris, two American servicemen and a boyhood friend with whom they were traveling met the test of actual, not rhetorical, heroism. When a young shirtless man appeared in their train car brandishing an assault rifle, one of the Americans, Alek Skarlatos, turned to his friend Spencer Stone and said, "Let's go!" Their traveling companion, Anthony Sadler, followed right behind as they went after the man with the gun. That man -- identified as Ayoub El Khazzani, a 25-year-old Moroccan -- had already fought off a train conductor and shot one French American who had confronted him. If the gunman's AK-47 had not jammed, there would have been much more blood spilled, but the momentary malfunction gave the three Americans an opening to subdue the attacker in a vicious struggle that left Stone with a nearly severed thumb on his left hand.
On Monday, French President François Hollande awarded the prestigious Legion d’Honneur to Skarlatos, 22, Stone, 23, and Sadler, 23, along with 62-year-old British businessman Chris Norman, who had helped them take the shooter down. As the California boys stood in their polo shirts and khakis amid the splendor of the Elysée Palace, the president thanked them on behalf of the French nation for preventing a horrific carnage.
"Your heroism should be an example to us all and a source of inspiration," Hollande said. "Faced with an evil -- and that's what it was -- called terrorism, there is a good, called humanity."
The three grew up together in the Sacramento area. Skarlatos and Stone had been buddies since they were 7 years old. They befriended Sadler a few years later. Even when, in high school, Skarlatos moved to Oregon to live with his father, the friendships continued. The Europe trip was a bit of a reunion for them. Now, they are bonded in a sudden rush of celebrity because, coming face to face with extreme danger, they did a very brave thing.
What drove their choice? The young men said it was not a thought process, it was instinct. Psychologists say this is typical of those who leap to put themselves in harm's way to protect the people around them. Thinking too long, even for a few seconds, causes hesitation. The brain can override bravery with caution and fear. Heroic acts spring from the gut and, perhaps, the heart.
Probably military training helped. Skarlatos did a tour in Afghanistan and currently serves in the National Guard. Stone is a U.S. airman on active duty in the Azores. They were both more primed and more capable of taking action than the typical tourist. Sadler, though, is a student at Cal State Sacramento, not a soldier. What made him join the fight? He grew up as a preacher's kid at Shiloh Baptist Church in Sacramento and, like his two friends, attended a Christian middle school. Did faith help him do the brave thing?
"It all happened so fast," Sadler said, explaining his actions. "We heard the word 'go,' and everyone just got up."