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 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT