Op-Ed: The True Meaning of Patriot Day

By David W. Walker

Joe Torrillo was a lieutenant with the New York City Fire Department, on limited duty because of a severe injury, when he saw the plane fly into the South Tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11. He rushed to the scene to assist with the rescue just in time to be buried in debris as the first tower fell. He had a fractured skull, broken ribs, a broken arm, a crushed spine and heavy internal bleeding. They had put him on a boat in the adjacent Hudson River pending evacuation when the second tower fell, burying Joe again, this time in the boat’s engine room. Insofar as is known, he was the only person buried twice during the 9/11ordeal, or at least the only one to survive such a double dose of bad fortune.

Joe need not have been buried at all. Because of lingering injuries from an emergency situation years before, Joe was not on active duty. He could have just gone on home. But Joe was, among other things, a structural engineer and knew the buildings would fall. Those were his colleagues rushing into hell; he went into help in any way he could knowing his life was at risk.

Patriot Day, now being recognized as an annual event on September 11 to commemorate the heroes of that terrible day, should not be confused with Patriots’ Day in New England where the Battles of Concord and Lexington of the Revolutionary War are remembered, usually in April. In contrast, Patriot Day is intended to celebrate the contributions of people like Joe—ordinary citizens who step forward and do extraordinary things for other people in times of need or crisis.

Some may think of Patriot Day in terms of honoring military veterans, especially those who returned wounded from the battlefields and struggle daily with the physical and psychic wounds they brought home with them. All well and good. We honor them on Memorial Day and Veterans Day, and if we honor them again on Patriot Day, so much the better. We can never do enough for them.

But all of us cannot be heroes on the battlefields. The first responders like Joe Torrillo in every community—fire fighters, police, and emergency crews—are people who care about others and are willing to sacrifice for them, even in extreme danger. To them I would add Red Cross and Salvation Army workers, volunteers in food kitchens and Cub Scout den mothers and the people with boats who appear out of nowhere when there’s a flood – just everyday people who are grateful to live in a free country and honored to participate in our bounty, people who care about others in peril or need and want to give something back to society. Many are motivated by religious faith or civic duty or some combination of the two. Others are not necessarily reflective about their motives, just willing to get up and go do what needs to be done.

Whatever their motivation, the citizens who reach out to others, who give of themselves and their time, are true Patriots in the finest sense of the term. They are serving humanity, yes, and they are serving our country as well. They are us on our better days doing what is right and noble. The government on its best day cannot remedy all of our social ills. It cannot recognize everyone who falls through its safety net nor respond immediately to people in crisis. But among our many blessings in this country – and we are blessed beyond measure—is a widespread sense of caring and willingness to take the initiative in reaching out to those in need.

President George H.R. Bush spoke glowingly of “a thousand points of light,” and his words still ring clear and strong across the years. Many other advanced industrial nations lag far behind us in charitable giving and volunteer work. It isn’t that they do not care, but rather that they depend on government to fill society’s needs. It is the culture they are raised in.  It simply does not occur to many of them to take individual action to address crises or social ills on their own initiative. But no government, no matter how benign and well-meaning can cover the waterfront of human need and despair. We have government agencies aplenty created and funded to help people but they cannot begin to meet the need, and I doubt if other governments can either.

What we do have in abundance are patriots and it is clearly one area in which the divisions in our society—political, religious, ideological or whatever—have not eroded our sense of community. When you rally to a crisis or reach out to those in need, you look around you and see people from all walks of life—all races, religions and political persuasions. We may not think of ourselves as being patriotic, but we are. Webster’s defines patriot as “one who defends one’s country.” Acts of civic responsibility and public service are the glue that holds our society together and are very much part and parcel of national defense. This is Patriot Day. Look around you at all the patriots out there giving of their time and treasure to help others. And if the opportunity arises, say “Thank you for your service.”

[David W. Walker is the president and CEO of the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes, a veterans support organization based in Leesburg. Learn more at saluteheroes.org.]

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