There are those who say that human beings are incapable of truly altruistic conduct, and that everything we do, no matter how outwardly generous and selfless, is in fact self-serving. There are others, and I am among them, who believe that human beings have natural ethical instincts that lead them to sacrifice for the benefit of society generally, those in peril, and those who are weaker than themselves, especially children. Those instincts can be nurtured by our culture or extinguished by it, but I believe that they are there in most of us….for a while, at least, sometimes weak or dormant, but there, nonetheless.
They were obviously there in Specialist Dennis P. Weichel Jr. of Providence, Rhode Island, a National Guardsman serving in an Afghan province east of Kabul. On March 22, he left the 16-ton gun truck he was riding in to disperse local children who were wandering in front of his heavily armored convoy, searching for treasure, the brass shell casings that could be melted down for other uses or be sold. Suddenly a small girl saw a casing and ran into the path of one of the huge military vehicles. Weichel, a father of three, dashed to her, grabbed her, and threw her to safety unharmed. The gun truck struck the Guardsman instead, fatally injuring him.
Weichel was engaged to be married. He is the first member of the Rhode Island National Guard to die in Afghanistan.
Nothing can erase the tragedy of the U.S. serviceman who turned mass murderer in Afghanistan a month ago, and Weichel’s heroism is unlikely to change any hearts and minds there. That wasn’t Weichel’s objective anyway. He saw a young life in danger and acted, risking his own. It would be a better United States if all of us were raised to react as he did, and if our culture more unambiguously encouraged our best instincts rather than our worst ones. The cliché mouthed by politicians is that our military combat personnel are fighting for American values. Dennis Weichel demonstrated that they also carry American values with them, and in his case, he displayed the very finest.
Weichel was promoted posthumously from specialist to sergeant and awarded the Bronze Star, which is appropriate, and Rhode Island’s flags are being flown at half-mast. The honor he most deserves, however, is to be remembered and emulated by the rest of us.