Are There Any Heroes Left?

When a person of iconic stature falls from grace, the reverberations often cause the foundations of societal beliefs to crack and shift. The swift departure of Penn State’s legendary head football coach, Joe Paterno, serves as a prime example.

Late last week, during a chance run-in with a Penn State alum, I gingerly inquired about the ongoing investigation into the allegations of child sexual abuse leveled against former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky that, in the end, ensnarled Paterno.

“Are there no heroes left in the world?” asked the alum.

Cleary taken aback by the allegations, as well as the former head football coach’s seemingly lack of compassion for those abused, the revelations shook this man to his core.

In reality, however, when another human being is placed-up on a pedestal his or her admirers are bound to be disappointed.

In his new book, It is Dangerous to be Right When the Government is Wrong, former Judge Andrew Napolitano notes that all human beings are “fallen” under the auspices of “original sin,” found, initially, in the tenants of Judaism. Human beings—each any every one of us—are dreadfully imperfect, which is why searching for heroes is a process that is sure to disappoint.

Cases of hero worship gone-bad abound: Barry Bonds and steroids; Edward Kennedy at Chappaquiddick; Richard Nixon and Watergate; Douglas MacArthur and the bonus marchers; the infidelities of Elijah Mohammed; and Peter’s betrayal of Christ.  

Having heard of this incident of hero worship run-amok third hand, I will refrain from attaching any names, although the story is quite revealing.

In the mid-1990s, a high-ranking former military general was set to make a personal appearance in Milwaukee. For such visits, a unit within the Milwaukee Police Department is responsible for providing a small security detail. 

One of the police officers assigned to this unit—a former Marine—served under this former high-ranking military commander during Operation Desert Strom. As such, the police officer sought and received permission to serve on this particular security detail.

On the day of the event, the former high-ranking military officer had finished his remarks and was waiting, backstage, for his ride to the airport. Standing only a few feet away, the police officer and former Marine approached his hero.

“Sir,” said the officer, as he introduced himself, indicated the branch of his service, and extended his right hand, “I had the pleasure to serve under your command during Operation Desert Storm.”

“That’s great,” said the steely-eyed former general, clearly agitated, “but where’s my damn limo!”

Heartbroken, the police officer walked away in disbelief.

Even our REAL heroes—the Americans throughout history that have put their lives on the line to protect us at home and abroad—sometimes stumble.

Just recently, I viewed Restrepo, a film that chronicles the tour of a U.S. Army airborne combat team in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan.  Soon after their arrival, a medic assigned to the 2nd Platoon, Juan “Doc” Restrepo, was shot in the neck and killed. Out of respect for their fallen colleague, the troops lent his name to the observation post that they were assigned to defend.

Within the ranks of the Special Forces, the Korengal Valley is considered a virtual no-man’s land—an outpost in the center of a region heavily influenced by the Taliban.  The documentary portrays these young soldiers as courageous and, yet, often times scared—both of which are important conditions for self-preservation.

During one scene, a solider is gunned-down, and his friend in the unit—in the midst of an ensuing battle—openly weeps. “Don’t worry,” said another solider, seeking to get his distraught colleague’s head back into battle, “he went quickly.” 

In the Afghani Theater, the soldiers of Restrepo fought valiantly while losing several good men. Back home, however, they face a host of new problems primarily related to post traumatic stress, which could cause a few to stumble and fall.  

And having watched this riveting documentary, my advice to the Penn State alum was to view Restrepo. Regardless of what one thinks of the legacy of Joe Paterno, heroes do more than teach Xs and Os.  During the course of human events, real heroes quantify success not by wins or losses, but by life, death, and the ability to defeat those demons that might follow them home.


Steve Spingola is an author and retired Milwaukee Police Department homicide detective.

If your group is in need of a fascinating guest speaker, consider the Spingola Files Psychology of Homicide presentation.  For more information, visit

 © Steven Spingola, Wales, WI, 2011

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