They’re safe. The world sighed relief as the 13 members of the “Wild Boars” soccer team emerged safely from the Tham Luang Cave in northern Thailand. Their safety was secured in large part by the efforts of many civilian volunteers, in particular two British cave divers, Richard Stanton and John Volanthen, who alerted the public that the boys were alive a little over a week ago.
As a career military officer, I’ve been stunned by the heroism of civilians in such dangerous circumstances — the high water and low oxygen, to name just two frightening aspects.
It reminds me that while we often see so clearly the heroism on battlefields, we too often miss the heroes at home. It’s time for a civilian Medal of Honor.
And these two British divers are indeed heroes. For the benefit of others, they performed an extraordinary task at great personal risk. Unfortunately, we know the task was life-threatening because a retired Thai Navy SEAL died during the rescue.
But such civilian heroism goes well beyond Thailand. Consider the “Spider Man of Paris,” just over a month ago, when Mamoudou Gassama, a Malian immigrant, took a mere half a minute to scale four stories and save a child on a ledge in France’s capital city.
Or, a little over a week ago, when Wendi Winters, in the Capital Gazette shooting in Annapolis, Md., rushed the shooter to distract his killing spree? (Winters was tragically killed, but she likely saved several others thanks to her self-sacrificing action.)
Beyond a short media spike, we don’t honor these heroes as we should. It seems the only way America really recognizes civilian heroism is for Tom Hanks or Clint Eastwood to make a movie about it.
As when Hollywood focused its lens last year on the heroism in wildland firefighting in “Only the Brave,” about the Granite Mountain Hotshots from Prescott, Ariz. Today, more hotshot crews assemble in southern and western Colorado. Local news reports that in response to the Lake Christine fire, the Union Hotshots from La Grande, Ore., as well as more from Prescott, are on the scene. A few days ago, the deputy incident commander, near tears, reminded the media that this is “hazardous” work for firefighters, as he recalled the Storm King fire that claimed 14 firefighters nearby in 1994.
Many of us here in Colorado know that our property, homes, families, and lives depend on the hard work and sacrifice of these brave fire crews.
These firefighters, along with all those other civilians that serve without uniforms and beyond battlefields — deserve their own Medal of Honor for uniquely heroic acts.
Our country should simply do as the French: their Legion of Honor is the highest order award for military and civilian merits. France’s president makes final decisions on recipients, with the aid of a senior military and civilian deputy, and with the flexibility and latitude to give the award to non-citizens (including the three Americans who stopped a terrorist aboard a train bound for Paris in August 2015).
In suit, the American Medal of Honor should be expanded to include a separate civilian category. It would properly bestow honor on those that selflessly undertake exceptionally heroic actions, in a way that other long-term contribution awards like the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Congressional Gold Medal simply do not.
Civilians have already earned the Medal of Honor. “Buffalo Bill” Cody received one for his actions, for example, in 1872. Though that award was for his heroic conduct alongside U.S. troops on the frontier, it means the precedent already includes civilian awardees.
The only tweak would be to allow a civilian Medal of Honor to be granted for actions off the battlefield. But that shouldn’t be a problem: these firefighters, building-climbers, and gunman-rushers have all clearly exhibited the award’s core criteria: “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond” what we expect from citizens.
It turns out, Stanton, the British cave diver, is a retired firefighter. But not just any retired firefighter — he was knighted in 2012 by Queen Elizabeth II for his previous cave rescue efforts. Now that he’s done in Thailand, maybe Stanton will come to Colorado. We need one more firefighting hero to join the many already hard at work.
Major ML Cavanaugh (@MLCavanaugh) is a non-resident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point. This essay is an unofficial expression of opinion; the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. government.