The New Action Heroes
In a time of war, the Army finds innovative ways to promote its warriors
On Dec. 3, 2003, 35 Iraqi insurgents ambushed U.S. Army Sgt. Tommy Rieman and his seven-man squad near Abu Ghraib prison, firing AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades at the team's unarmored humvees. Rieman returned fire as his driver sped out of the kill zone. Away from the ambush, the squad started to assess their injuries only to come under another attack by 15 fighters. Taking cover behind his humvee, Rieman launched grenades and emptied his magazine clip. When the firefight ended, Rieman called in a medevac helicopter. One squad member lost a leg to an enemy grenade; another had been shot in his buttocks. Rieman himself took bullets in the arm and the chest and shrapnel in his chest, head, and legs. But the ambush had been repelled, and a total of 35 insurgents had been killed in the two engagements. To the Army, Rieman's actions embodied the warrior ethos of a true hero: accomplish the mission, save your soldiers, and kill the enemy.
Although Rieman, now 25, received a Silver Star for his actions that day, there was little public recognition other than an Army press release and a passing mention of the award on CNN last summer. A LexisNexis database search turns up no other press mentions of Rieman's heroism under fire.
The Army is looking to rectify that. A new project called "Real Heroes" will seek to tell a wider audience about Rieman and eight other soldiers through an unusual medium. The Army is making the nine soldiers into characters in its popular video game, America's Army. What's more, the Army is also licensing plastic action figures in their likenesses. The idea is to tout ordinary people who, when thrust into danger, showed extraordinary courage. And that is why the Army loves Rieman's story. Before enlisting, he was just a teenager with a bad attitude and a job at a gas station in Independence, Ky. "That is the focus here," Rieman says, "to let people know a normal person can be a hero."
Today, there is public recognition of a certain kind of heroism. The press regularly memorializes those soldiers who have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. What's missing are the tales of the soldiers who embody the Army's warrior ethos--men and women who have fought and killed the enemy. As the 208 Silver Stars awarded by the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan show, there is no shortage of such heroism. Nevertheless, in the public consciousness, the Pentagon feels it is suffering a hero deficit.
Famous names. Where are the heroes of the past? In an earlier age, many combat heroes like Sgt. Alvin York, who killed 25 Germans and captured 132 more in World War I, and Maj. Audie Murphy, who is credited with killing 240 enemy soldiers in World War II, were major celebrities. They were men from humble backgrounds held up for exemplifying American values.
The wars that produced celebrity combat heroes were all-consuming affairs for the nation, times when Americans on the home front made regular sacrifices for the war effort. Both the press and Hollywood were eager to feed the public's hunger for war stories of valor, heroism, and triumph. But the military, too, worked hard to promote its heroes of World War II, says Roger Beaumont, a military historian and professor emeritus with Texas A&M University. "The government put war heroes on tour, talking to industry, urging people to buy war bonds," he says. "This was big stuff."
Neither Korea nor Vietnam, though, produced a combat hero that rose to the same prominence as Murphy. The public was more skeptical of those wars, and filmmakers and journalists of that era were less receptive to the Army's stories of individual heroism.
The Army is unlikely to create mass-market interest in current-day war heroes. Iraq has not been a full-mobilization war. While soldiers' families have been asked to make great sacrifices, most Americans have given up nothing. So when it comes to promoting Iraq war heroes, the military has set a more modest goal. Rather than creating national celebrities, they want to make sure these war stories are heard by a more targeted audience: young people of recruiting age.
Traditional recruiting pitches that highlight college money and job training fall short at a time when new soldiers face multiple yearlong combat tours. While the Army reported last week that it had exceeded its recruiting goals for October, during the previous 12 months it fell nearly 7,000 soldiers short of its active-duty recruiting goal of 80,000. And recruiters anticipate that the coming year will be even tougher. So the military needs a message that resonates with the patriotic instincts of young men and women. That is where the heroes come in. The story of a gas station attendant turned combat hero makes it easier for a young person to imagine he or she, too, could do something extraordinary.
Earlier this year, Chris Chambers, a retired Army major who helps oversee the America's Army game project, began thinking about the lack of recognizable heroes from Iraq and Afghanistan. "There are thousands of soldiers winning Bronze Stars and Silver Stars, but their stories are just not known," Chambers says. As he thought about it, Chambers realized the Army did not need the press to tout its heroes, at least not with teenagers. Today, young people spend far more time playing video games than they do reading newspapers. "We think that America's Army [is] the most popular pop-culture tool the Army has available," Chambers says. "It might be able to create the next Audie Murphy."
Digital heroes. The America's Army game was introduced in 2002, with the idea that it could teach people a little about what the military does while entertaining them as well. In the past three years the free, online game has been a surprising success. About 40 percent of new enlisted soldiers report playing the game before signing up, and there are currently 6 million registered players, a number likely to grow with this week's release of a new version for the Xbox game console. The "Real Heroes" concept will be integrated into the larger America's Army program. The plan is to make digital avatars of nine different soldiers, including one woman, Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester, a military police officer who won a Silver Star for helping to kill 27 Iraqi insurgents. The digital likenesses of the nine real soldiers will "train" game participants and tell players a little about the battles that earned them their medals. As for the plastic action figures, the Army will release the first next spring, complete with a card that describes the soldier's heroic acts and background.
The figurines may be controversial with some parents uncomfortable with both the glorification of war and the recruiting message. But Bruce Norton, a retired Marine Corps major and the author of the Encyclopedia of American War Heroes, says he hopes the action figures prompt more discussion among young people. "We try to guard ourselves, our children, and families; we try not to glorify combat," he says. "But we need to talk about what it takes to get the job done."
There are some details Sgt. 1st Class Gerald Wolford won't discuss about the four-hour fight to secure three crossings over the Euphrates River that earned him the Silver Star and a place in the action figure lineup. But he feels it is important to tell his story of how he and his men battled against Saddam Hussein's militia. "This helps Americans realize there are people doing amazing things right now," Wolford says. "It's not just Audie Murphy 60 years ago."
This story appears in the November 21, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.