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 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT