10 years after 9/11: Reluctant heroes

While some public safety personnel just eat up the hero-worship stuff, others are uncomfortable with all the attention and just want their life back

One of the nobler stories to come out of the 9-11 tragedy involved multiple cases of heroism on the part of public safety professionals — police, firefighters, paramedics, rescuers, and others — who risked, and all too often gave, their lives in the service of others. Lauded and lionized as heroes — and why not? — these individuals may not have realized at the time what a two-edged sword this can be, and many were surprised by the sometime negative reactions they had to these experiences.

Although I have not worked directly with public service personnel who participated in the 9/11 emergency response and rescue efforts, I have consulted a number of other “heroes” — sung and unsung — of more local crises and I will try to offer some insight into the stresses and challenges of being in the hero role, and what such “heroized” personnel can to cope successfully.

The Public Just Doesn’t Understand
Heroized personnel often can’t understand why they may feel uncomfortable, even irritable and resentful, at all the attention they’re getting from well-meaning civilian admirers — shouldn’t they be appreciative, or at least not care? They may come to realize that what irks them is that most of these people don’t even know what they’re celebrating; they don’t have a clue as to what it takes to carry out a complex and dangerous intervention action, yet here they are hooting and hollering, like they know what it’s all about. It helps to focus on the fact that we all praise (or criticize, for that matter) a lot of things in the absence of complete information.

Should you not revel at a concert or cheer at a ball game because you’re not a musician or athlete? You know what you do, so be proud of yourself and accept the accolades of the blissfully ignorant in the spirit in which it’s intended.

They’re Getting Off On Our Sacrifice
This is a more insidious variation of the above. Here it seems like the public — and especially the media — are “exploiting the exploits” of the heroized personnel, using their service and sacrifice to sell air time or create some kind of false bond with the responders that they can use for their own advantage. To deal with these hangers-on, take a page from how people cope with “emotional vampires” in daily life: by pulling back a few emotional steps and setting up a thin, flexible, but resilient wall of emotional distance.

Don’t be snarky or pissy, but be cool, calm, courteous, and confident. Answer questions simply but graciously and convey by your dignified demeanor that, no matter what others may try to make of your experience, you are the true “owner” of it and reserve the right to act accordingly.

We Sure as Hell Don’t Feel Heroic
Here the anger and bitterness may be directed at yourself, as you begin to feel like you’re stealing credit that doesn’t belong to you. Would they all still be cheering if they knew we couldn’t save those civilians — or some of our own? That you were ill-prepared for the magnitude of this crisis and that your response sometimes felt like a Keystone Kops parody? Public safety professionals, perhaps especially police officers, are known for being super-hard on themselves, as if a perfect outcome every time were the only acceptable standard of performance.

Hard as it may be to do, try to resist this “you’re-only-as-good-as-your-last-foul-up” mentality and focus on the fact that, while others were gaping in numbed disbelief or sitting uselessly on their asses, you were doing something. It wasn’t perfect, maybe you made mistakes, but did you run away? Did you refuse to do your job? Learn from what went wrong (20/20 hindsight = 20/20 insight = 20/20 foresight) and become a better professional. That’s how experts in all fields keep pushing their learning curve.

I Didn’t Ask for This
While some personnel just eat up this hero-worship stuff, others are uncomfortable with all the attention and just want their life back. When I ask personnel who have been in critical incidents what is the most disturbing aspect of it in the following few days, the answer almost always is, “the phone calls — the damn phone never stops ringing.” Then there are the people coming up and high-fiving and thumbs-upping you to death. Part of the unease may relate to factors discussed above, but often it’s simply that you want some peace.

Again, learn how to be gracious but authoritative. Politely tell those who will listen that you appreciate their sentiments but that right now you need your space. And remember, part of what professionals like doctors, police officers, firefighters, or soldiers, do for a living is to provide society with a safety identification factor: we want to idealize the people we entrust with our safety because that makes us all sleep better at night. So accept this role and wear it with pride.

Hey, What About Me... Ain’t I a Hero Too?
This represents the opposite problem: too little attention. You worked just as hard as those guys did, and you get to sweep up while they get a parade. An unrecognized (or underrecognized) contribution in the face of an adequately — or worse, undeservedly — praised effort by another can be one of the most galling experiences. Sometimes this is an interdisciplinary thing, as was seen in the unfortunate rift that developed between New York firefighters and police officers shortly after 9/11.

Often, however, this occurs within one’s own department, or even in one’s own unit. In such cases, there are few dignified ways of reclaiming your due credit without looking like a whining scene-stealer. So your main source of pride may have to come from within and from that small inner circle that really knows what went down. This is not to discourage you from asserting your rights to practical benefits you’re legitimately entitled to, such as medical care, hazard pay, time off, promotions in rank, etc. Just don’t expect any hugs and kisses, and realize that the stinging, petulant, jealous fifth-grade girl feeling you’re walking around with is perfectly normal until enough time passes and you’re able to immerse yourself in some other good work that gives you a feeling of professional accomplishment and satisfaction.

Going Back to Dullsville
Even if — especially if — you actually liked the hoopla and fanfare swirling around you in the wake of your heroic escapade, sooner or later it will be time to get back to regular business. No, not everybody gets a book deal or a talk show, and there are just so many media interviews and public displays of appreciation before the city takes down the banners, and the public moves on to the next big story. Here is where it is vitally important to have something meaningful to come back to.

Of course, you can’t control everything about your job, but why not at least try to parlay your new-found acclaim into a bid for a better assignment (assuming you’re otherwise qualified). Try to be subtle about this so you don’t garner ridicule for being “Mr. Bigasshero” trying to throw your weight around. But, as with the point made above, don’t be afraid to legitimately capitalize on this accomplishment as you would on any other, less public, credential. Remember, in the end, if you just go back to being a regular Joe Cop, you did have your 15 minutes of fame — which is more than most people can say.

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