My Perception of Today’s Heroes
By Ron Albers, Colonel, USAF, retired
It appears to me that the heroes of the average American today are sports figures. Our Air Force members are a professional team, so let’s compare them to professional athletes. Airmen are often criticized for occasionally missing targets, perhaps causing “collateral damage.” True, sometimes they are off-target; but certainly more than 95% of the time they are right on target (probably closer to 99% of the time.)
A professional basketball player is among the top ten in the NBA if he makes 60% of his field goal attempts from the floor, 33% from three-point range, or 90% from the free throw line. A batter in professional baseball gets three tries to hit the ball; and, if he hits it on one of those attempts only once every three times he’s at bat (33% of the time,) he’s among the best hitters in the major leagues. The top quarterbacks in the NFL complete 66% of their passes. Yet, the public and media seem to expect perfection from our Air Force: 100% bombs on target 100% of the time. Any miss is unacceptable; and skeptics are quick to publicize, criticize, and emphasize the travesty. Unlike sports statistics, successful hits are rarely mentioned; only the attempts that missed the intended target and damaged/injured something/someone they shouldn’t have.
But it’s comparing apples and oranges to compare an airman in wartime to a professional athlete, isn’t it? It certainly is! Consider the differences.
Professional athletes have a firm schedule of when and how long they play. They always play in the afternoon or early evening, never in the middle of the night or early in the morning. A ball game is never a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week contest. At most, the game lasts 3 or 4 hours. If the team is not certain what to do next, a time out is called – even in the midst of the heaviest, most demanding action. If an individual player gets tired or confused, he can be replaced until he is physically and mentally rested. A manager can stop baseball action by simply walking out to the pitcher’s mound to chat. Football players pause after every play to discuss what to do on the next play. Inclement weather delays or cancels baseball games. Basketball is always played inside. The “bad guys” on the other sports team are all wearing the same colorful, matching uniform to identify them. Both teams always have the same number of players. Players never hide or try to deceive the opposition by dressing or acting like a fan. They don’t booby trap the bases, baskets, or goal posts. There are officials watching every move to make certain nobody is breaking the rules. There are rules covering every single detail of the game that must be followed by both sides. There are numerous coaches watching the entire contest closely to provide immediate guidance for each player’s every move. Again, if something doesn’t look quite right, they call a time out. If it gets dark, someone turns on the lights so everyone can see. Every player is visible to every other player at all times. And the boundaries are clearly marked for all to see.
How many professional athletes play today with other than brand-new, state-of-the-art equipment? Is there ever a chance that they’d be using equipment that’s 30, 40, or 50 years old? Yeah, right! Are sports opponents literally trying to kill or maim members of the other team? Is it a life-or-death situation if that basket isn’t sunk, that touchdown cannot be made, or that run is never scored? Is someone going to die or suffer life-changing injuries if a field goal is missed, a foul committed, or a ball fumbled? Is world history dependent upon whether one team or the other wins?
Airmen in combat are paid 5-digit salaries for putting their lives on the line every single day, all day long, for a year or more. Most professional athletes make more playing a single game than a military troop makes all year. During their games, athletes are surrounded by staffs of specialists who see to their every need. When the game is over, the athlete is free to do what he wants. He enjoys simple pleasures like a hot shower, a nice bed with clean sheets, cable TV, a chance to relax in peace and quiet away from the competition, and any type of food or beverage he desires. The athlete has an ESCAPE from the contest every single day (and that escape lasts the vast majority of the day.) Military troops in a war zone never escape their environment, the danger, or the uncertainties. Yet, in spite of numerous adverse conditions, our troops are always expected to be mentally alert and physically able to do what’s required of them – and without error. And 95+% of the time they succeed. Against incredible odds and obstacles, they rack up some astounding statistics and a phenomenal record of wins.
So, guess who my heroes are? And, please, don’t even get me started about America’s other “idols” - our movie stars.
The writer is a retired USAF colonel who was a pilot and commander during his nearly 34 years in uniform, the last 28 years with the Air National Guard at Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base, Ohio. After leaving active duty, he was a traditional guardsman for 20 years before assuming a full-time technician slot with the 121st Air Refueling Wing in 1994.