The Science Behind Heroism

Dissecting why some people run toward danger—instead of away from it.

The Chinese zodiac calendar designates 2015 as the Year of the Sheep, but we take issue with that characterization of timidity. We like to think of 2015 as the Year of the Hero. And not because the (perplexingly) popular NBC television series made a brief reappearance this fall. Consider: Spencer Stone and the thwarted Paris train attack; Umpqua Community College shooting victim Chris Mintz, who tried to block the gunman’s progress and was shot seven times; closer to home, University of Colorado Boulder student Max Demby, who stopped a sexual assault this spring; or the good Samaritan who hauled a drowning man out of Monument Creek near Colorado Springs in October.

Obviously, there are people accomplishing superhuman feats every day in the Centennial State—teachers, social workers, volunteers—but when we say hero, we’re zeroing in on those who willingly put themselves in harm’s way for someone else. With our rugged terrain (and the dangerous backcountry rescues that come with it), more than 37,000 active military personnel (11th most in the country), and a population dense with independent, risk-tolerant free spirits, there’s no lack of such folks in Colorado. We know these people are out there (thank God). What’s more difficult to understand is why they react to danger differently than most others.

The short answer is instinct. When it comes to acts of what psychologists call “extreme altruism,” two things are usually true. “One, you’ve got to have the impulse to help,” says Ziv Epstein, a Boulder native and Pomona College student who has published papers on the topic with Yale professor of psychology David Rand. “And two, you’ve got to go with your gut and not overthink things.” Most people have the desire to help: When someone stumbles, you reach out a helping hand; when someone drops his hat, you pick it up. Such actions are the cornerstones of most cooperative societies, but they aren’t entirely altruistic, Epstein explains. Assisting others at a small cost to yourself can be beneficial in the long run: It establishes “helping” as a cultural norm from which you might benefit down the road—like, say, the next time you drop your hat. We internalize the behavior, and it becomes our day-to-day default. The hero part comes when we apply that same helping response to atypical situations.

The Social Heuristics Hypothesis, psych speak for a kind of social learning, suggests that when we’re faced with abnormal scenarios (like a gun-wielding man on a train), our initial response is the one we’ve honed in our daily lives: to help, despite potentially dire consequences. The reason more people don’t end up tackling the bad guy is they don’t act immediately. Hesitation gives the brain time to catch up, to process the situation. The brain says to itself, If you go after the guy with the gun, he might shoot you—and directs its owner toward self-preservation (Run!). Rand and Epstein call this the “danger of deliberation.” “What differentiates extreme altruists [heroes],” Epstein says, “is that they go with their guts.”

That explanation might also illuminate why many accidental heroes, like Stone and Mintz, have military backgrounds, Epstein says. The military environment not only fosters a cooperative spirit, but during training and combat, it also requires individuals to act quickly—to go with their initial reactions. The rest of us may never know how we’d respond unless we find ourselves in a threatening situation. Here’s hoping that never happens, or that if it does, we react like many of the Coloradans below did: on instinct.

Colorado Courage By The Numbers

308: Calls, on average, Denver Fire’s 30 stations receive daily

72: Denver Police Department officers killed in the line of duty

25: Percentage of the national Mountain Rescue Association’s missions that take place in Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico

$0: Amount Colorado search-and-rescue teams charge (also the amount squad members are paid)

1978: Year Colorado’s good Samaritan law—which says that in most cases you can’t be sued for making a “good faith” attempt to help someone in an emergency—was created

197: Medals of Honor, Army Distinguished Service Crosses, Navy Crosses, and Air Force Crosses awarded to Coloradans

Accidental Hero

Situated less than two miles from Columbine High School, 550-student Deer Creek Middle School has endured two shootings, one in 1982 and another in 2010, when a quick-thinking math teacher stopped the gunman.

David Benke can’t tell you much about what the shooter was wearing that day. But he can tell you a whole lot about the gun he was wielding.

At 3:02 p.m., the then 57-year-old math teacher at Littleton’s Deer Creek Middle School reported for bus duty. Benke hated bus duty. He usually found reasons—grading papers, class prep, anything—to avoid it. But that day, February 23, 2010, he dutifully exited the school and made his way to the crosswalk by the buses. Benke had just finished chatting with a student when he heard what sounded like a firecracker. The teacher walked toward the noise, ready to reprimand the student for bringing firecrackers to school. “Mentally, I started going through a list of students,” Benke says. “Then I see the guy. He’s about 10 yards from me, and he’s feeding bullets into a bolt-action rifle.”

Benke, who’d grown up with a father who hunted, knew the .30-06 rifle was a powerful weapon, but a slow one. The shooter would need to chamber a round before every shot. What Benke didn’t know was where the gunman was in his cycle. Benke paused. Between him and the shooter, a seventh-grader stood with her hands to her ears, screaming: “What do we do, Dr. Benke? What do we do?!” From the parking lot, the girl’s mother could see her daughter silhouetted against the gunman.

“Run!” Benke yelled, just after the shooter fired again. Then the six-foot-five-inch teacher sprinted at the gunman. Stunned, the man dropped the gun as Benke tackled him. They struggled, and Benke ended up on the bottom. Fellow math teacher Norm Hanne jumped in and pulled the shooter’s arm behind his back. Only 10 seconds had passed since the shooting started. Two students had been hit. Reagan Weber was shot in the arm when the first hollow-point bullet passed through her jacket. Matt Thieu suffered broken ribs and a punctured lung after being shot in the back.

Although Weber and Thieu made full recoveries, Thieu’s injury haunts Benke. The teacher faults himself for allowing the assailant to take a second shot. Pointing out that hundreds of others weren’t hurt because of his response does little to comfort the teacher, who retired in 2013. Instead, he redirects the conversation to the actions other teachers took: Those inside gathered students in classrooms, locked the doors, turned off the lights, and waited in silence. They’d been taught to do so just three weeks earlier during an active-shooter training program. “When we did the lockdown drills, I promised the kids if something happened, I’d do something,” Benke says. And when that something came to Deer Creek, Benke kept his promise.

Valiant Moments In Colorado History

—By Karah Kemmerly

—Hose Company Number 3, 1895

Housed in Five Points’ Station 3, three of Denver’s first black fire crew (and its white captain) perished when the floor gave way while the men were fighting a blaze in the St. James Hotel.

—Susan Anderson, Early 20th Century

A tuberculosis sufferer, “Doc Susie” moved to Fraser hoping the climate would improve her condition. She then spent five decades trekking miles through snow to treat hundreds of patients.

—Samuel M. Fowler and William W. Smith, 1923

Miner Joseph Wechselberger would have suffocated in a Bonanza silver mine if it weren’t for Fowler and Smith: When he fell 80 feet into an ore shoot, these two miners grabbed a rope, went in after him, and pulled him up, despite the threat of a

—Joe Martinez, 1943

Born in Taos, New Mexico, and raised in Ault, Colorado, Martinez, an Army private, received the Medal of Honor posthumously for leading a charge in the Aleutian Islands during World War II. He was the first soldier from Colorado, as well as the first Hispanic-American, to receive the Medal of Honor during WWII.

—Joseph Carson, Dominic Lepore, Stanley Moor, Charles Nelson, O. Jack Phillips, and George Steck, 1951

On its way back to Lowry Air Force Base, a B-29 bomber crashed into three Denver homes and caught on fire. These six civilians braved the inferno—one crawled into the wreckage—to save an Air Force co-pilot and gunner.

—John Skerjanec Jr., 1958

When Nellie Roberts lost control of her vehicle on a mountain roadway near Cañon City, Skerjanec overtook Roberts and her passenger, Gladys Meals, in his truck, then let Roberts’ car hit his bumper and slowly braked, eventually stopping the car by steering it into a berm.

—Leo R. Helsper, 1967

When his Aurora neighbor’s apartment caught on fire, this airline ticket agent kicked in a bedroom window and carried three-year-old Jeffery Gruenewald to safety before the fire department arrived to rescue Gruenewald’s infant brother and put out the flames.

—Michael Dowd, 1969

Detective Dowd of the Denver Police Department shot and killed escaped convict James “Mad Dog” Sherbondy, who was armed with a pistol and a stick of dynamite, at the Meadowlark Hills Shopping Center. Dowd (far right) sustained several gunshot wounds during the encounter and subsequently had to retire from the force. Complications from those wounds plagued him until his death 28 years later.

—Alpine Rescue Team, 1970

Eighteen teenage members of the Evergreen-based search and rescue unit led the search—and ultimately, the recovery—effort for members of the Wichita State University football team when their plane crashed near Loveland Ski Area.

—Janice Munson, 1991

While traveling eastbound with her husband on Lincoln Avenue in Douglas County, this 39-year-old saw a swerving van with an unconscious driver. Her husband flashed his lights to warn oncoming traffic, and then Janice ran over to the vehicle, jumped in, and parked it herself.

—Dave Sanders, 1999

When two seniors opened fire at Columbine High School, 47-year-old Sanders, a teacher and coach, helped hundreds of students evacuate. After he ran back into the hallway to herd more kids to safety, he was shot and later died from his injuries.

—Wayne Carroll, Robert Crump, and Will Roberts, 2000

Firefighters Crump and Roberts were trying to save a woman stranded by a flash flood near East 50th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard when Crump was pulled underwater near a culvert. Roberts jumped in to try to save him, but Crump drowned. Carroll, a civilian who had already helped another woman and four children avoid the channel, pulled Roberts and the woman to safety.

—Cory Romero, 2000

When two-year-old Brittany Emmons ran close to a moving van in her apartment complex parking lot in Greeley, 12-year-old Cory stepped in and scooped her up—but he fell in the process, and the van crushed his foot. Fortunately, he made a full recovery.

—Denny Lewin, 2001

When terrorists hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 on September 11, 2001, Lewin, an Internet entrepreneur and Denver native, stepped in. The former Israel Defense Force serviceman was killed while wrestling with the hijackers in an attempt to regain control of the plane.

—Jeanne Assam, 2007

This former cop was volunteering as a security guard for New Life Church in Colorado Springs when an armed gunman entered the building and began shooting. After Assam shot him several times, he turned his gun on himself.

—Willie, 2008

As two-year-old Hannah Kuusk choked on her breakfast, this Denver parrot yelled, “Mama, baby!” until babysitter Megan Howard rushed in to administer the Heimlich maneuver.

—Alpine Rescue Team, Rocky Mountain Rescue Group, and Custer County, Douglas County, and El Paso County search-and-rescue teams, 2009

When a climber fell near the top of 14,201-foot Crestone Needle in July, these SAR groups climbed the peak in the dark then lowered the injured man more than 1,700 vertical feet to a helicopter—all in the middle of the night. They were later presented with the National Association for Search and Rescue’s Valor Award.

—Matthew McCune, 2010

McCune, an attorney, saw Erin Lucero’s boyfriend hit her, causing her to fall out of a moving car, and intervened. After the boyfriend left, Lucero insisted on walking home instead of waiting for the police, so McCune followed her. When her boyfriend returned to attack her with a knife, 36-year-old McCune shielded Lucero and sustained multiple stab wounds, from which he recovered.

—Kenneth Goss, 2010

Redlands resident Goss was driving along the Colorado River near Moab in April when he saw David and Judi Broadbent and their two toddlers struggling in the water after their raft had overturned. He jumped out of his vehicle and swam to their aid. Goss was hospitalized with hypothermia, but all four Broadbents and Goss survived.

—Daniel Harrison Haley, 2010

On a November day in Greeley, 10-year-old Brenndan Daviet fell through the ice 60 feet away from the shore of a pond. Haley, an off-duty state trooper, pulled him to safety.

—Kenneth Goss, 2011

Grand Junction native Goss was driving along the Colorado River near Moab in April when he saw David and Judi Broadbent and their toddler struggling in the water after their raft had overturned. He jumped out of his truck and swam to their aid. Goss was hospitalized with hypothermia, but all three Broadbents survived.

—Jonathan Blunk, Alex Teves, and Matt McQuinn, 2012

When a gunman began shooting in an Aurora movie theater showing The Dark Knight Rises, these courageous twentysomethings died shielding their girlfriends—who all survived.

—J.D. TenNapel, 2012

As an ominous cloud of smoke approached his home in Cedaredge, this eighth-grader hopped on his ATV to warn his neighbors about the approaching wildfire. He sustained second-degree burns as he rode back through the flames and told police officers where to find an elderly woman he hadn’t reached. He made a full recovery.

—Richard Brian Andrade, 2012

When electrician Joseph Doyle touched a live wire on a job in Colorado Springs, his colleague Andrade shook him free, suffering electrical burns to his right leg in the process.

—Jezebel, 2013

Thanks to this feline hero’s yowls of warning, Jon and Deyn Johnson, owners of the Whispering Pines vacation cottages in Estes Park, and their guests were able to evacuate safely from a flood.

—Davis LeMair, 2013

On a ski trip in Vail, 22-year-old Edwin LeMair was caught in an avalanche and buried up to his head in snow. His 19-year-old brother, Davis, found him and dug him out.

—Del Creason, 2013

When Ronnie Webb and his seeing eye dog were sucked into a drainage culvert under 13th Avenue in northeast Denver during the 2013 floods, Creason, a Denver cop, used his childhood knowledge of the area to figure out where the pair would surface and met them there, where he was able to pull them out.

—Guinness, 2015

This daring hound dog faced off with a rattlesnake in Jefferson County to save his foster family’s niece, Jenna Castello. Guinness sustained two bites, but his bravery earned him a permanent home.

—Jeff Nelson, Western History Collection; Getty Images; Denver Public Library; Courtesy of The Blunk Family; Courtesy of The Teves Family; Courtesy of The McQuinn, Jackson, and Yowler Families

The Bomb Squad

It takes a special set of skills to be an explosives enforcement officer for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. So special, there are only 22 in the country—and two of them live in Denver. Stephen Shelley and Gary Smith, who helped neutralize Aurora theater shooter James Holmes’ booby-trapped apartment, each have more than 20 years’ experience. The pair is responsible for ATF explosive investigations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and Montana. We asked how they keep us—and themselves—safe.

5280: How did you get into this?

Shelley: You take an aptitude test when you join the Army. Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) is one of the hardest military schools to get into. You also have to try out to be a bomb tech. There’s a bomb suit test. You wear the suit—it’s about 90 pounds—and you carry weights. You exercise in it. You have to show finger dexterity; you have to pick up coins in the suit. You can’t be claustrophobic. You can’t be colorblind.

What does the bomb suit protect against?

Smith: Fragmentation and a little bit of overpressure [blast pressure].
Shelley: The bomb suit just keeps the carcass together. The blast pressure is going to kill you.

Right, so, tell me again why you decided to try out for EOD?

Shelley: For a 19-year-old kid to get paid to play with explosives—you can’t get much better than that.

How have things changed over the past 20 years?

Smith: The improvised devices have gotten more complex.

I take it there’s more to it than just cutting the red or blue wire?

Shelley: Well, yeah. We splash holy water on it and then pick a wire [laughs]. It’s by logical deduction. It’s a lot of training, studying, working with each other.

How often do you guys get called out on a job?

Shelley: A few times a month. It comes in waves. Usually a special agent will be involved in an investigation and it will involve explosives or a device.

Do you ever use robots?

Smith: Not very often.
Shelley: Our job is for the prosecution. A lot of what we do is disassembling devices. We don’t just shoot it like a regular bomb squad would. We go in and try to recover as much as we can: fingerprints, DNA, and all the components so we can present that at trial.

How does our bomb scene differ from other parts of the country?

Smith: It seems like it’s slower here in our field division. But it seems like when things break bad here, they’re really bad.

Do you ever get scared?

Shelley: Not really. We’re more scared of making a mistake and looking bad than actually dying. I’m more worried about making a mistake in testimony that could possibly hinder the prosecution, or making bad case law, or making the ATF or fellow bomb techs look bad. The actual working on devices or explosives…no.

Not even when you were overseas on deployments?

Shelley: Your first one, that’s pretty scary. But you’re dealing with so many devices during wartime. You’re talking thousands of devices within a deployment. So you don’t know if that’s going to be your day. You can’t really look at it that way because you’ll drive yourself crazy.

OK…so what does get your heart rate up?

Smith: It’s the kind of stuff we’ve seen overseas. Eventually those techniques and tactics are going to end up over here. We’ve already seen it a little bit.

And that doesn’t keep you up at night?

Shelley: Nah. If I got thrown into your job—having deadlines and stuff—that would stress me out more. I’m used to it. It’s just a way of life.

The Fallout

Exploring the darker side of being brave.

When Tom Wood joined the Evergreen-based Alpine Rescue Team (ART) almost 20 years ago, he was attracted by the chance to gain backcountry experience as well as by the opportunity to help people. And there has been plenty of both: ART averages more than 100 missions a year. But there have also been more recoveries than Wood cares to talk about, including the particularly difficult task of digging out the five snow professionals killed in an avalanche near Sheep Creek on Loveland Pass in 2013. “I used to count how many recoveries I’d been on,” says Wood, who’s now an ART field director. “I quit counting when I hit 70.”

As it turns out, being a white knight isn’t all ticker-tape parades and Tonight Show appearances. There are emotional and psychological tolls exacted by exposure to disturbing events, even if the outcome is positive. Sadness, anger, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, depression—all can be signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “When you experience or see something traumatic, it stays in your thoughts. It consumes you,” says Dr. John Nicoletti, a Denver psychologist contracted to work with dozens of government agencies, including the Denver Police Department, Denver Fire, and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. “Folks in law enforcement and firefighters know it’s part of the job. If you’re an accidental hero, you have no frame of reference. It can be harder on you.”

In recognition of the potential ill effects of regular exposure to grisly scenes and disquieting situations, the American Psychological Association established a new field of practice in 2010: police and public safety psychology. Denver was already way ahead. Since the late 1970s, the Denver Police Department has provided the option for officers involved in traumatic events to consult at least once with a psychologist. Now, it’s mandatory (and paid for), so there’s less of a stigma associated with getting a mental tune-up. In the wake of Columbine and other school shootings, many Colorado school districts now offer similar counseling services for free to staff. Denver Fire’s mental wellness program—initiated after one of its captains died by suicide early in 2013—recently won the Shining Lights of Hope Award from the Carson J Spencer Foundation, which focuses on suicide prevention.

Even the practices at Alpine Rescue have changed since Wood started: “We try to prepare our members these days that this is an unfortunate aspect of what we do,” he says. “We make sure there are resources available to them, and we train our staff to recognize the signs of PTSD.” As with many of the other programs, the goal, of course, is to prevent these altruists from becoming victims of their own bravery.

Thank-You Notes

Colorado first responders share some of the unique tokens of appreciation they’ve received.

—Grand County Search and Rescue didn’t find Littleton hunter Richard Kothanek, who went missing in November 2014. But when his father died this past May, the family asked for donations to Grand County Search and Rescue in lieu of flowers.

—On November 27, 1977, a plane crashed in the Capitol Creek drainage area near Aspen; C.B. Cameron died. The plane’s other five passengers, including Cameron’s wife and two children, survived two nights in frigid conditions before Mountain Rescue Aspen (MRA) found them. Thirty-four years later, Cameron’s daughter, Lynda, who was 15 at the time of the crash, donated an estimated $1.5 million to build MRA’s new headquarters, the C.B. Cameron Rescue Center.

—Three years ago, members of Denver Fire Station 29 helped deliver a baby in Green Valley Ranch. Every year, on the child’s birthday, the mother comes by the station with doughnuts and her son to say thank you.

—In May 2001, Brad and Melissa McQueen and Brad’s father were caught in a storm on Mt. Evans and spent the night exposed at the base of nearby Mt. Bierstadt. Melissa lost eight of her toes to frostbite in the ordeal, which the husband and wife wrote about in their 2015 book, Exposed: Tragedy & Triumph in Mountain Climbing (Big Earth Publishing). Not only did the couple host a benefit for Evergreen’s Alpine Rescue Team, which helped save them, but they also are donating a portion of the proceeds from the book to the group.

Jeff Nelson; Getty Images; iStock

Honor Thy Brother

Colorado’s oldest Medal of Honor recipient joined the Army to fight for his country, but on a French hillside, George Sakato simply fought for his friend.

In the spring of 1944, George “Joe” Sakato and Saburo Tanamachi stared out at the New York City street scene from their Waldorf Astoria Hotel window. The two young soldiers, along with a couple of their Army buddies, had pooled their money—$10 each—to get a room at the famous hotel for just two hours. It was an extravagance for men who made only $21 a month. But the young Japanese-American soldiers wanted to be able to say they had stayed in the fanciest hotel in New York before they left to join the war. They were boarding ships for Europe in a few days.

Sakato, a California native who had moved to Phoenix to avoid internment, volunteered for the Air Force in March 1944, but he was instead assigned to the Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Made up almost entirely of Japanese-Americans, the 442nd became one of the most decorated units in U.S. military history. After the 442nd landed in Italy in June 1944, it spent three months fighting across Europe. Along the way, Sakato often camped with his friend Tanamachi, whom he’d known since basic training. In October 1944, the 442nd arrived near Biffontaine, France, where it was ordered to conquer German-held Hill 617. Dropped behind enemy lines at night, the men of the 442nd climbed in the dark, single file, each holding the backpack of the man in front of him.

Just after dawn, the soldiers surprised their enemy and claimed the hill—temporarily. The Germans quickly launched a counterattack. As Sakato reloaded his Thompson submachine gun, he saw German gunners making their way back up the hill. He shouted a warning. “Tanamachi, for some reason, he stood up and says, ‘Where?’?” Sakato recounted during a 2008 interview with Densho, a Seattle-based oral history project. “And he got shot.”

Sakato crawled over to his wounded friend and picked him up, trying to stop the bleeding. In Sakato’s arms, Tanamachi attempted to talk but couldn’t. He was choking on blood. “Then he just went limp on me, and I knew he died,” Sakato told Densho. “I cried. I hugged him. I laid him down and looked at all of the blood in my hands and I said, ‘You son of a bitch!’ I threw my pack off, picked up the Tommy gun. I was mad. That SOB, I was gonna shoot him no matter if I died trying.” Sakato leaped out of the foxhole and began a one-man charge, zigzagging up the steep grade. By the time his comrades joined him and helped him retake the hill, he had killed 12 enemy soldiers and captured several others. His actions earned him the Distinguished Service Cross, an award that was upgraded to the Medal of Honor in 2000. Sakato, who settled in Denver a few years after returning from the war, remains modest. “What did I do differently than others?” he asks. “They had to go through the same battles. I’m no more a hero than any of the others in the unit.”

Editor’s Note: George “Joe” Sakato died on December 2. He was 94. 

Chasing Heroes

Taking risks is part of telling veterans’ stories.

When Broomfield author Adam Makos embedded with the Army in Iraq in 2008, it took some time—and a straight-talking soldier—for the danger to register. As Makos headed out on a raid with a Special Forces squad, the team’s medic slapped him on the chest, mimicking the application of a compression bandage. “If you get shot,” he said, “that’s all I’m going to do for you, and then I’m going to have to leave you because my responsibility is to those guys.”

The then 27-year-old writer and founder of Valor, a military history magazine, had gone to Iraq in the name of research. Makos was working on a book about an American B-17 pilot in World War II who was spared by a German fighter pilot, and he believed he needed to experience a combat zone to write about the bonds forged in them. It worked; A Higher Call (Berkley) spent 23 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list in 2012 and 2013, and renowned playwright Tom Stoppard has optioned the screenplay.

Five years later, despite warnings from the U.S. government, Makos traveled to North Korea with Korean War veteran Tom Hudner. The pair hoped to track down the remains of Jesse Brown, the Navy’s first black fighter pilot, who crashed near Chosin Reservoir on December 4, 1950. Hudner intentionally crash-landed his plane beside Brown’s in an unsuccessful rescue effort, an act that earned him the Medal of Honor. Makos details the crash and attempted rescue in his new book, Devotion (Penguin Random House), released in October. “When you have the legacy of great men in your hands, there’s a sense of duty,” he says. “By taking small risks to do their stories justice, I’m also paying homage to their memories.”

Colorado Fallen Heroes Memorial

—By Henry Gargan

$250,000: The estimated price tag of Denver’s as-yet-unbuilt Colorado Fallen Heroes Memorial—a monument initially designed to commemorate Coloradans killed in conflicts spanning World War I through the present day—which was approved by the Legislature eight years ago. Although the commission charged with bringing it to fruition hopes the memorial will be finished by Memorial Day 2017, that seems unlikely considering only $12,000 has been raised so far. Meanwhile, a similar monument—the Colorado Freedom Memorial, which lists the names of each Colorado veteran killed in war since 1876—was completed in Aurora near Buckley Air Force Base in 2013. To learn more about how you can contribute to the Colorado Fallen Heroes Memorial, visit

—Getty Images; Courtesy of the United States Army; Courtesy of Ballantine Books

Heroic Hot Spot

Is Pueblo Colorado’s most intrepid city?

With 108,249 residents, Pueblo accounts for only two percent of Colorado’s population, yet four of the state’s 24 Medal of Honor awardees hail from the city: William J. Crawford, who earned his during World War II; Marines Carl Sitter and Raymond G. “Jerry” Murphy, who both received their medals for actions during the Korean War; and Drew D. Dix, an Army Special Forces soldier in the Vietnam War. When President Dwight D. Eisenhower presented Murphy with his medal in 1953, the commander in chief reportedly said, “What is it…something in the water out there in Pueblo? All you guys turn out to be heroes!”

Pueblo resident and historian Doug Sterner, whose Home of Heroes website catalogs the military actions of every Medal of Honor recipient, believes it’s more like something in the culture. “There’s a large influence from the Hispanic population here,” he says. “A big part of Hispanic culture is a sense of duty and personal obligation. I think the rest of the Pueblo community has taken that piece on, too.” Sterner, himself a Vietnam veteran, also points out that a sense of personal responsibility is ingrained in rural communities like Pueblo and the surrounding area. Of course, there’s also the fact that many Pueblo residents come from modest means, and it’s been well-documented that those with humble backgrounds are statistically overrepresented in our military.

Heroism also might abide by Newton’s first law: Once in motion, objects tend to stay in motion. And courage is very much in motion in Pueblo. Beyond the Medals of Honor, the town regularly enlists more residents than other Colorado cities of its size. (It also, sadly, tends to have more casualties in conflicts.) And the town itself celebrates its legacy. It adopted the tag line “Home of Heroes” in 2000, built a memorial plaza and exhibit at the convention center with eight-foot-tall statues of Pueblo’s four Medal of Honor recipients, and even hosted the Congressional Medal of Honor Society’s national convention in 2000 (as it will again in 2017). “The history of heroism we have in this state is incredible,” Sterner says. “It can be little-heralded, though. We’re trying to fix that.”

State of Valor

A look at Colorado’s collection of military medals for gallantry.

—By Sarah Cahalan

—Courtesy of Jim and Paulette Stuart; Wikipedia (4)

Doctoring Amid Devastation

A Denver physician travels to Sierra Leone to battle the Ebola epidemic.

On May 24, 2014, the first case of Ebola arrived in Sierra Leone. By the end of August, more than 1,000 infections had been reported. (More than 11,000 people worldwide died in the recent outbreak.) The highly contagious and often fatal virus left many Sierra Leonehealth-care professionals fearing for their lives. They refused to work, citing the perilous conditions. Hospitals shut down and routine health care ceased. In addition to the victims of Ebola, thousands died from treatable conditions.

By fall 2014, Denver Health doctor and University of Colorado fellow Dr. Grace Marx resolved to do something. “Most people go into medicine with a desire to help people,” she says. “And in this case, I thought, I’m trained for it.
I’m a board-certified internist and fellow of infectious disease with a focus on public health. If anyone should go, it should be me.” After months of paperwork, on January 17, 2015, Marx headed to Freetown, Sierra Leone, where she joined others volunteering with United Kingdom–based King’s Sierra Leone Partnership at Connaught Hospital.

Although new cases of Ebola had decreased by the time Marx arrived in Freetown, the epidemic was not contained. By day two, she’d already seen several new cases; by day four, a least one patient was dead. On day seven, Marx developed a fever, stomach pain, and nausea—all symptoms of Ebola. She quarantined herself and mentally catalogued her contacts from the previous days. She reminded herself she’d been conscientious about her personal protective equipment (PPE), an ensemble that takes more than 20 minutes—and multiple chlorine rinses—to change out of. “Before I went over, I felt pretty confident. The rule is you just don’t touch things that have Ebola on them,” Marx says. “Then you get over there and you’re in your third hour in this Tyvek suit and emergencies come up. I’m sitting on the edge of the bed thinking, Could I have screwed up?” By morning, though, her symptoms had disappeared; she’d had a case of traveler’s flu. She stayed in her hotel room, rested for another day, then went back to work.

Marx spent the rest of her six-week stay treating patients with Ebola as well as those with chronic, treatable illnesses like HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis. And for her, that was the most frustrating part of the entire experience. “It’s emotional seeing so many patients die from preventable diseases,” Marx says. “People were desperate for any form of help. You’re overwhelmed by patients while knowing that other places have so much.” The disheartening situation has only strengthened Marx’s resolve to help, though: The doctor returned to Denver in March but plans to make more trips overseas in the future.

A Precious Gift

Last year, David Rochlin was one of 105 Colorado kidney donors who endured bureaucracy, major surgery, and the risk of future dialysis so that someone else might live. But unlike many of those donors, Rochlin didn’t give up his left kidney for a family member or friend: He sacrificed a piece of himself for a complete stranger. Here, the 63-year-old Environmental Protection Agency attorney explains why.

“About 10 years ago, a lawyer who worked with my wife developed kidney disease and needed a transplant. His donor turned out to be his wife. That situation put organ donation onto my radar. Then, during spring and summer 2013, my younger daughter, Elle Powell, worked as an intern at the American Transplant Foundation. Shortly after that, an article came out in the Denver Post about a 38-year-old woman who donated a kidney to an unknown recipient in Virginia. It just seemed like a good thing to do. I figured it was now or never. That decision started a long and elaborate screening process. My family was very supportive; my mother was the only one who was uneasy at first. I guess that’s natural. She was on board eventually.

In December 2013, the National Kidney Registry finally put me on the donor list. I waited, but nothing happened. Then the staff at Porter Adventist Hospital’s transplant center explained that I could donate to somebody who was at a higher risk for organ rejection, meaning he or she was not qualified to be on the national list. I said sure, and in August 2014 the hospital scheduled the operation for September, but I had no idea who was going to receive my kidney.

For the first two or three days after the surgery, I was pretty miserable. But if you’re potentially saving someone’s life, it’s a small sacrifice. About six weeks after the surgery, I felt like I was 100 percent. I do a lot of hiking and biking, and the fact that I was able to get back on my bike and do well with day-to-day commuting, then longer rides, was gratifying. Today, it’s like the operation never happened. I still have a scar on my abdomen, though, so that’s a souvenir.

The possibility exists for a donor and a recipient to meet and get to know each other. Sometimes those are very emotional and long-lasting relationships. I made it clear that I would be interested in meeting the recipient of my kidney. A staff person at Porter’s transplant center, where I had the surgery, explained I needed to write a letter, which would be relayed from my social worker to the recipient’s social worker. I wrote the letter several months ago. I never heard anything. I still haven’t. I don’t want to be a nag about it. If the recipient does not want to meet me, that’s the end of the story. The counselors at Porter did a very good job preparing me intellectually and emotionally for the possibility that I would never meet the recipient. Now, more than one year after the surgery, I assume that I never will. But hope springs eternal.

When people find out that you’ve given a kidney to someone, they will tell you how wonderful you are. Some might use the word hero. I dispute that characterization. I try to emphasize that, really, ordinary people can be voluntary donors. It doesn’t take some extraordinary personality. It just takes somebody with kidneys.” —As told to Steve Knopper

A Hero’s Hero

We asked each of our profile subjects whom they admire.

“The Deer Creek faculty did very brave things. If you look at their response, it was textbook. The students. I tell them the best revenge is living well. And John Michael Keyes, the father of Platte Canyon victim Emily Keyes, who started the I Love U Guys Foundation (see Be A Hero).” —David Benke, retired Deer Creek Middle School teacher

“The senior military EOD guys who are still taking care of problems. ” —Gary Smith, explosives enforcement officer

“Yeah. We just had a friend, who grew up in the Army, retire. We both started at the same time. He stayed with it and retired as a master EOD tech. His men really respect him. He’s gone to war with them and brought them back—and he’s led from the front.” —Stephen Shelley, explosives enforcement officer

“All of the Army guys I fought with. We all faced the same hills, faced the same Germans. Also kids who are going to battle now; it’s altogether different now, but they still have to stick together. And Gary Sinese; he does a lot of work for the Medal of Honor Foundation.” —George Sakato, Medal of Honor recipient

“There are many categories of people I admire greatly: poets, journalists, actors, dancers, musicians, artists, people with talents of all sorts. But if I had to choose one category, I think it would have to be those who do Doctors Without Borders. Many doctors and nurses are admirable, but serving in combat zones where you know your own life is threatened is downright heroic.” —David Rochlin

“The person I most admire is my father. As a child of eight, I stood on a chair watching him do surgery in the operating room. Later, I joined him on hospital rounds, examining patients with tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV. He is selfless, compassionate and thoughtful and a terrific clinician. His example led me to a career in medicine and also contributed to my belief that access to high-quality health care is a human right, including—and maybe especially for—the destitute sick.” —Grace Marx

—Jeff Nelson; Courtesy of David Rochlin

5 Small Ways You Can Be a Hero

1. Before she was killed by the man holding her hostage at Platte Canyon High School in 2006, 16-year-old Emily Keyes sent her parents a text message that read, “I love u guys.” Her parents later established the I Love U Guys Foundation, which trains educators and students in the standard response protocol for active-shooter scenarios. Find out how you can support the foundation at

2. A $50 donation to the Colorado chapter of Concerns Of Police Survivors (C.O.P.S.) gives you the opportunity to sport a “Fallen Hero” license plate—and also a warm and fuzzy feeling since you’ll be helping the families of police officers who died in the line of duty.

3. About 100,000 Americans are waiting for kidneys, and every year about 4,000 die. To be a living donor, you typically need to be 18 and in good health, and usually you must not have high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, hepatitis, HIV, or organ-specific diseases. Contact Denver’s American Transplant Foundation to learn more.

4. Although the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone appears to be over, resources are still needed for other treatable illnesses. Contact Project HOPE to find out how you can help.

5. The Stolen Valor Act (a version of which was initially born in Colorado in 2006) makes it a federal crime, punishable by up to $100,000 and up to one year in prison per offense, to profit from posing as a decorated soldier. And yet accusations of phonies abound—in part because simply lying about it isn’t a crime. (That’s protected by free speech, according to a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision.) You can verify many claims at the Military Times Hall of Valor website, a searchable database of all Medal of Honor recipients plus many other valor awardees (such as the Navy Cross or the Silver Star). Or report suspected phonies to watchdog group Guardian of Valor, who will investigate the claims.