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A veteran, a hero

MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. -- A few years ago I had the experience of a lifetime.

I spent an entire weekend with one of my heroes.

And for once the hero actually lived up to the title.

Growing up, I had plenty of heroes. Most emerged from the world of sports. The walls of my bedroom were plastered with posters of guys like Michael Jordan, Joe Montana, and Larry Bird. My heroes, the men I admired and wanted to emulate, were those that performed on the playing field--the kings of competition.

Of course, with hero-worship comes the inevitable want to meet each and every hero. I made plenty of attempts to do so. I stood behind dugouts at Major League Baseball games, begging for handshakes or autographs. I sent countless fan mail letters in hopes of receiving some acknowledgement from the individuals I held in such high esteem. Alas, my pleas for attention went unanswered and my heroes remained high on a pedestal, completely out of reach.

Later in life while working as a sports broadcaster, I finally had the opportunity to meet some of my heroes in person. Covering games, conducting sideline interviews and locker room access had allowed me into the world of these men I still considered to be heroes. I was finally in the presence of greatness!

Turned out it wasn't quite as great as I imagined.

Meeting all of those guys was cool. But with each encounter, I realized more and more that these "heroes" were really just people. They weren't anything that special. They were great sports figures, but that's all they were. The fact they could run, jump and throw better than 99.9% of the population didn't make them worthy of my unabashed worship and admiration. They were just ordinary people lucky enough to be blessed with extraordinary talent. That's it.

This was the point I began to look to other individuals as heroes. People like my parents and grandparents, those who had given and sacrificed for love and family. These are the individuals who now fill the void left by my so-called heroes of the past.

Then, a few years back, I found another hero.

My friend Todd used to work with me as a photographer when I was a broadcast journalist. He's a young guy, smart and talented. He has a wonderful wife and two beautiful young daughters.

He's also a veteran.

When Todd graduated from high school he signed up with the Army National Guard. Like many high school graduates who join the Guard or Reserve, he was planning on using the education benefits to pay for college. His plans were to attend college, get a degree and join the workforce.

In life, timing is everything.

Todd was at Army basic training the day two airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center. He told me he and the other recruits were allowed to watch the coverage on TV. He said that was the point he realized he wasn't going to be going to college anytime soon.

He was right.

Over the next few years, he served two tours overseas. He spent the entirety of one year in Afghanistan, working to help establish good community relations with the locals. Make no mistake-- this wasn't "inside-the-wire" duty. He saw combat while there. He was in a firefight. He had close encounters with IEDs. He saw death and dying.

And then he came back home.

His second tour ended just in time for his oldest daughter's fourth birthday party. He was nice enough to send me an invitation to come down and join in the festivities.

What I saw at the party was incredible.

I watched as a guy only a few weeks removed from a war-zone gift-wrapped a "Shrek" toy for his daughter. I saw him lie in bed next to her and wait for her to fall asleep because she was afraid to sleep alone. I watched him cook his wife and daughter pancakes for breakfast in the kitchen next to the laundry room where his Army Combat Uniform was waiting to be washed, still covered with dust from the Afghan streets. I saw him joking with family and friends, working a barbecue grill full of burgers and hot dogs, smiling, laughing, and simply happy to be home. I saw him walk along the shore of a lake and help his daughter feed the ducks pieces of leftover hot dog buns.

In short, I saw an ordinary guy who had done the extraordinary.

That, in my mind, makes a hero.

Todd is a humble guy. If you ask him, he'll tell you he didn't do anything special. He'll tell you there are thousands upon thousands of individuals just like him out there, in all branches of service, who have served our country, gone to war, come home and are now taking care of their families without asking for anything in return.

And he's right--there are plenty of people like that out there, our heroic veterans, those brave individuals we celebrate, honor and revere.

Each and every one of them is undeniably a hero in his or her own right, and is deserving of that title.

But I don't know each and every one of them. I never will. I do know Todd. I know the kind of guy he is. I know what he and his family have sacrificed and given up for our country.

It's a sacrifice that deserves and demands respect.

Todd, and those like him, has done the kind of stuff the vast majority of people wouldn't have the guts to even consider, let alone volunteer for.

But he did it. He did it without asking for recognition, and then he came back home to be a husband and a daddy.

That's unbelievable.

That's what our veterans do.

And that is why Todd, a veteran, is one of my heroes.

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