City Lights: What makes a hero?

There's been a debate in the Los Angeles Times recently about whether all of America's servicemen and women should be labeled as heroes. William J. Astore, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, began with a July 22 opinion piece arguing that automatically calling troops "heroes" was misguided and even dangerous. "By making our military a league of heroes, we ensure that the brutalizing aspects and effects of war will be played down," he wrote.

Then, predictably, came the backlash: Dorian de Wind, a retired U.S. Air Force major, denounced Astore's views and argued that the brutal actions of a few soldiers don't diminish the bravery and selflessness of most. "[C]alling the other 99.9% of our troops heroes will definitely not produce 'cognitive dissonance' in the minds of Americans, nor will it result in Americans calling acts of violence of our troops 'necessary, admirable, even noble,'" he countered.

While this brouhaha plays itself out on the opinion pages, Joanne Rasmussen of Huntington Beach prepares for her only daughter to ship overseas with the U.S. Navy.

I've interviewed Rasmussen on several occasions, but never about the military. I know her best as one of the masterminds behind the Huntington Beach Community Garden. Right now, though, she's settling into another role — military mom. Her daughter, Elizabeth Savino, enlisted in the Navy last year and is preparing for a job in Aviation Ordnance.

For those unfamiliar, Aviation Ordnance is a unit of the Navy whose job is to load live bombs into jets before missions. ("If there is an error," Rasmussen told me, "I say goodbye to my baby girl.") Savino may be deployed in December or January, and it will be the first time her mother has had a child in action overseas; her son was in the Marines for five years, but never saw combat.

When Rasmussen told me her story, I thought about those pundits in the Times debating whether the phrase "hero" applied to people like her daughter. I e-mailed her the articles to get her thoughts, and she replied candidly.

"People can throw around the word 'hero,' or not," Rasmussen wrote. "The word itself is not what is important. What is important is to get the job at hand accomplished. Why? Because those who work in the military, as a whole, realize that you cannot be looking this way or that, thinking of yourself as someone great or small. You focus on the job at hand, or your buddy or yourself will be ... no more."

She added: "I love my daughter very much, and I pray that she comes home in one piece, mind and body. But if that does not happen, I will hope that others will honor the courage it took to do her job alongside of her buddies."

I agree. In high school, I once joined in a class debate over how to define courage. The teacher gave us two examples — a soldier who spontaneously leaped on a grenade to save his comrades, and another who filled a truck with explosives and made a run into an enemy nest — and asked us which one showed greater bravery. I argued for the latter, because while a soldier can leap on a grenade with barely a moment's thought, consciously planning to risk one's life leaves a lot more time for second-guessing.

Is Savino a hero, then? Maybe, as Rasmussen said, that's just a word. But in volunteering to put her safety on the line overseas, she's shown admirable courage. And in remaining steadfast as the day of deployment nears, so has her mother.

City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at michael.miller@latimes.com.

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