Heroism: from Hudson’s ‘Sully’ to Afghanistan’s women

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, February 11, 2009 

Character, competence and cool-headed response to crisis have earned veteran airline pilot Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger hero status. The whole world knows by now that it’s thanks to the professionalism with which he landed his stricken US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River on Jan. 15 that he saved the 155 people on board his Airbus A320 after flying into a flock of large birds and losing thrust in both engines.

I’ve been thinking about his story a lot lately with regard to heroic stories our coffee companions have been sharing with me about folks doing the right thing.

For transplanted South African Hermann Brandt, being stuck in his Cochrane driveway because of Chinook-driven snow drifts is certainly not on the scale of Capt. Sullenberger’s emergency. But during Christmas week the kind initiative of Jesse Davidson in plowing him out of his unhappy situation certainly earned Jesse hero status with Hermann. Jesse just happened to be in the neighbourhood with his little yellow Bobcat.

Hermann, who often feels far from home at Christmas time, sends this word of thanks: “Jesse, you were a good neighbour who, though you did not know who we are, stopped and helped.”

Then there’s Marie Suthers’ account of the time when, at age 11, she was called on to do something heroic. She was out waterskiing when a cry for help came from the shore. A man was at the side of a woman lying unconscious on the dock. He had pulled his wife from the water but did not know how to administer first aid. Neither did Marie’s companions in the boat. This left Marie, who was the only one with any background in life-saving techniques – something she never figured she’d need.

While the men in her boat raced off to summon help, Marie swam to shore. Her first reaction upon closer inspection was to flee the scene and leave the drowning victim to someone else. But to whom? Then the story of the Good Samaritan came to her mind.

“The decision had been made in a blink of an eye,” she said. “I would help and do what I could.”

Drawing on her limited knowledge, she also showed the anguished husband what to do, and they took turns while waiting for a nurse to arrive. Unfortunately, in spite of their best efforts, the man’s wife did not make it, and for years Marie was haunted with the fear that her best efforts weren’t good enough.

What good did come out of the tragedy, however, was for Marie to pursue further training, and for over a decade she taught C.P.R. with the Canadian Red Cross.

To kindness and competence must be added two other ingredients – integrity and common sense – for the making of heroism and providing some hope that the right thing is done, according to Cochrane coffee companion Paul Morel.

“For all the benefits of our modern world, integrity and common sense seem to be fading away,” Paul wrote. All we have to do is look at the lack of integrity and common sense responsible for our current economic crisis. Here, the media bear a special responsibility as watchdogs, he stressed.

Which brings me to something the media – and especially the Internet – are actually doing rather well these days: raising global awareness of the crisis women in Afghanistan are facing, even in this supposed post-Taliban era.

In preparing for this column, I Googled +Afghanistan and +women in the same search. There were over 20,300,000 hits.

The overwhelming witness of these hits is that women in Afghanistan are still grievously discriminated against, especially with reference to education.

Those of you who have read Khaled Hosseini’s 2007 novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and Greg Mortenson’s and David Oliver Relin’s Three Cups of Tea have a pretty good idea of what I’m referring to. Recent incidents of acid being thrown in Afghan girls’ faces to intimidate them out of attending school add to the sick picture. The girls are determined to attend, anyhow.

Now, here’s an attempt at heroism Cochrane can be part of. At 6 p.m., Feb. 20, St. Andrew’s United Church is hosting a pot-luck dinner, Breaking Bread for Women in Afghanistan, a fundraising project in support of education for women and girls. The event is being held in cooperation with the NGO, Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan.

At the start of this column I made reference to the public’s praise of Capt. Sullenberger as a true hero. Although he is a most reluctant hero, he said on CBS’s 60 Minutes over the weekend: “I think they want good news; they want to be hopeful again. If I can help in that way, I will.”

Here’s an opportunity for us to bring hope by standing with the heroic women and girls of Afghanistan. Are we prepared to help them in this way?

© 2009 Warren Harbeck

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