Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Connelly: What it means to be a hero

By Michael Connelly, Special to CNN
updated 3:50 PM EST, Mon November 12, 2012
Crime author Michael Connelly (top row) visits with troops while on the Operation Thriller USO tour.
Crime author Michael Connelly (top row) visits with troops while on the Operation Thriller USO tour.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Author Michael Connelly recently met troops on USO's Operation Thriller III Tour
  • At first, he says he was disappointed he was not with troops on front line
  • Connelly says he soon learned a lesson in "what it is to be a hero"
  • Sacrifice, pride, professionalism are true ingredients of character, he says

Editor's note: Best-selling crime novelist Michael Connelly recently returned from a 10-day trip to the Middle East with the United Service Organization, a nonprofit organization that provides entertainment and assistance for troops and their families. Connelly's next novel, "The Black Box," comes out November 26.

(CNN) -- The slick, black aircraft came roaring down the runway on its way into the sky. We had been allowed to watch the takeoff from an elevated viewing area about three-quarters of the way down the strip. There were the five of us attached to the USO's Operation Thriller III tour: writers Kathleen Antrim, Joe Finder, Andy Harp, Brad Meltzer and me.

A handful of airmen assigned to a U.S. Air Force base in the Mideast were on hand as well. I was tracking the jet's advance down the runway with my video camera. I pivoted as the plane swept by, and my view was suddenly blocked by one of the airmen. He stood pumping his fist up and down as the jet rose in front of us. I momentarily paused on him and lost the plane. It streaked by with a blast of sound and air displacement that went right through me. I turned my camera in time to catch the afterburners as the aircraft rose at a steep angle into the sky.

I thought I had blown the shot with my pause on the airman's pumping fist. But then I realized I actually had the real shot, the shot that told the fuller story. The shot that underlined what I had been seeing over and over as we traveled from base to base and visited troops stationed in support of military efforts.

Opinion: Everyday should be Veterans Day

Michael Connelly
Michael Connelly

From the truck drivers to the pilots to the gate sentries to the colonels in command, the effort is one of pride and preparedness that left me with a new take on what it means to be heroic. These people, far from home and seemingly in the middle of nowhere, are the noble but unknown troops. They've got true character.

When I had first been approached about joining a USO tour comprising authors, I jumped at the chance. After all, I am in the hero business. I write about fictional characters who face adverse circumstances and with relentless spirit and drive overcome the odds to succeed -- sometimes at great danger and cost to themselves.

This is the coin of the realm when it comes to fiction. It's character, character, character. Slick plotting and exotic settings and forensic detail are all window dressing on the real deal. Readers come into a story looking to connect with a character they identify with and want to ride with. They are looking for heroes.

Veterans Day by the numbers

So what better way to meet and research heroes than a USO tour? I heard that last year's Operation Thriller USO tour went to Afghanistan and the one before that visited troops in Iraq. The writers on those trips were furnished with Kevlar helmets and flak jackets. I assumed we would make a similar journey, that we were going where the troops dodged sniper bullets and IEDs as a matter of course each day.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



But then I got the word. Operation Thriller III would not be going to the front. We would spend a week visiting support bases scattered across the Southwest Asia. Though my family breathed easier at the news, I have to admit I was disappointed. I had signed up to meet heroes and now I was going to meet the troops who backed up the heroes.

Well, I got that wrong.

On our weeklong USO tour, I got the chance to visit with the heroes who load pallets of water on cargo planes, the heroes who patrol the desert for explosives dating back to the first Persian Gulf War of 1991, the heroes who fix and maintain the vehicles that cover the rugged ground in Afghanistan and the hero pilots that fly in supplies instead of bombs.

Most of them came from reserve units from across the United States. It is work that is not without danger, but still it never gets the notice of the media focused squarely down range on the fight. No matter, these troops weren't looking for attention and they weren't looking to be called heroes. They simply were going about their jobs with pride and professionalism, knowing that down range it mattered. Like the airman fist-pumping at the side of the runway, character and heroism are where you find them. Sometimes, it's maintaining the plane instead of flying it. Sometimes, it's moving water bottles instead of bullets.

Always faithful: Marine veterans tend to hero's grave, cemetery

Supporting troops embody the true ingredients of heroism, Connelly says.
Supporting troops embody the true ingredients of heroism, Connelly says.

I met an Army specialist on a base in Kuwait who drives a forklift. He didn't wear a combat helmet. He wore a hard hat. His hard hat was a custom-made white cowboy hat he had ordered off the Internet. His job was to move pallets of water on to cargo planes that lifted them to bases all across the region. In a place where summer temperatures routinely break 100 degrees before the sun is barely up, bottles of water can be as important as bullets.

Eight months into his posting, he said he had helped move more than 3 million bottles of water and counting. It was a figure of which he was proud. He knew he played an integral part in the fight.

I didn't get to Afghanistan, but the USO and the man in the white hat taught me a lesson in what it is to be a hero.

They showed me sacrifice, pride, professionalism and reminded me that being part of the team and doing the job right -- whether anyone is paying attention or not -- are the ingredients of character.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Connelly.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:11 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
updated 1:28 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
updated 5:33 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT