The Chilean miners: Heroes no more — just like Ira Hayes

Does anyone know what a “hero” is anymore?   It is so blurred that almost anyone qualifies.   The “hero” mania is driven mainly by the media in their attempts to do feel-good stories and thereby build up ratings and circulation numbers.  It has little to do with reality.

The Phoenix television station, KPNX, Channel 12, styles itself as “Hero Central.”  The station’s segment last night made a “hero” of a 98-year-old man who volunteers for charity work.  In real life, he is no hero.  He is only an elderly man bored to the gills and it gives him something to do.   As it has done with “hero,” KPNX has taken “silliness”  to new heights.

I may have missed it, but I believe Channel 12 carried nothing of the New York Times story today about the plights of the once-heroic Chilean miners.  But why should it?  It’s such a damper on the “hero” mania that puts more money in its pocket.   You would think the station could look back on Arizona’s own World War II “hero,” Ira Hayes, and learn the lesson that bestowing “hero” on anyone is often underseved and a curse.

Just like Hayes, those 33 miners trapped last year in the San Jose Mine, soon fell on bad times, their official status as global heroes now a distant memory.

“One year after their globally televised rescue, after the worldwide spotlight faded and the trips and offers have dwindled,” the New York Times reported today, “the miners say that most of them are unemployed and that many are poorer than before.”

Two grind out a living by selling fruits and vegetables, the Times said.  Many are being treated for psychological and substance abuse problems.   Only four have returned to mining jobs.

Unlike those miners who were at the wrong place at the wrong time, Hayes seemingly was at the right place at the right time.  He was one of the six U.S. soldiers seen raising the American flag atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima in early 1945.  The moment was caught by photographer Joe Rosenthal.  The photo won a Pulitzer Prize, and Hayes and his buddies returned to the U.S. as heroes.  Hayes and others toured the country, a part of the government’s P.R. program to sell the war.  Hayes even became the subject of a movie, The Outsider, starring Tony Curtis.

But Hayes, who grew up near Bapchule on the Pima Indian Reservation south of Phoenix, was never comfortable with his role as “hero.”  He became an alcoholic and died just 10 years after the flag-raising, in January of 1955.  His body was found lying on the ground, dead of exposure to the elements.

Ira Hayes was no hero.  Famous, yes, but no hero.  He was just another soldier who happened to appear atop Suribachi because that’s what he was ordered to do.   And it was the second flag-raising, not the first.  Same for the miners.  They only did what any normal person would do in a bad situation.  They were resourceful and tried to keep their spirits going.  Some did better than others.

It is a sad truth:  If everyone is a hero, then, really, there are no heroes at all.

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