The New Action Heroes
In a time of war, the Army finds innovative ways to promote its warriors
On Dec. 3, 2003, 35 Iraqi insurgents ambushed U.S. Army Sgt. Tommy Rieman and his seven-man squad near Abu Ghraib prison, firing AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades at the team's unarmored humvees. Rieman returned fire as his driver sped out of the kill zone. Away from the ambush, the squad started to assess their injuries only to come under another attack by 15 fighters. Taking cover behind his humvee, Rieman launched grenades and emptied his magazine clip. When the firefight ended, Rieman called in a medevac helicopter. One squad member lost a leg to an enemy grenade; another had been shot in his buttocks. Rieman himself took bullets in the arm and the chest and shrapnel in his chest, head, and legs. But the ambush had been repelled, and a total of 35 insurgents had been killed in the two engagements. To the Army, Rieman's actions embodied the warrior ethos of a true hero: accomplish the mission, save your soldiers, and kill the enemy.
Although Rieman, now 25, received a Silver Star for his actions that day, there was little public recognition other than an Army press release and a passing mention of the award on CNN last summer. A LexisNexis database search turns up no other press mentions of Rieman's heroism under fire.
The Army is looking to rectify that. A new project called "Real Heroes" will seek to tell a wider audience about Rieman and eight other soldiers through an unusual medium. The Army is making the nine soldiers into characters in its popular video game, America's Army. What's more, the Army is also licensing plastic action figures in their likenesses. The idea is to tout ordinary people who, when thrust into danger, showed extraordinary courage. And that is why the Army loves Rieman's story. Before enlisting, he was just a teenager with a bad attitude and a job at a gas station in Independence, Ky. "That is the focus here," Rieman says, "to let people know a normal person can be a hero."
Today, there is public recognition of a certain kind of heroism. The press regularly memorializes those soldiers who have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. What's missing are the tales of the soldiers who embody the Army's warrior ethos--men and women who have fought and killed the enemy. As the 208 Silver Stars awarded by the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan show, there is no shortage of such heroism. Nevertheless, in the public consciousness, the Pentagon feels it is suffering a hero deficit.
Famous names. Where are the heroes of the past? In an earlier age, many combat heroes like Sgt. Alvin York, who killed 25 Germans and captured 132 more in World War I, and Maj. Audie Murphy, who is credited with killing 240 enemy soldiers in World War II, were major celebrities. They were men from humble backgrounds held up for exemplifying American values.
The wars that produced celebrity combat heroes were all-consuming affairs for the nation, times when Americans on the home front made regular sacrifices for the war effort. Both the press and Hollywood were eager to feed the public's hunger for war stories of valor, heroism, and triumph. But the military, too, worked hard to promote its heroes of World War II, says Roger Beaumont, a military historian and professor emeritus with Texas A&M University. "The government put war heroes on tour, talking to industry, urging people to buy war bonds," he says. "This was big stuff."