U.S. Senator Ben Cardin

Letters From Ben

July 31, 2021

American Heroes 

July 31, 2021

Dear Fellow Marylanders:

This was a week for heroes. From Tokyo to Washington, D.C., the world has watched Americans demonstrate courage in the face of danger and real-life strength of character. The outcomes may not have been comfortable to watch or what we all expected to see, but that is the nature of a hero – they show strength and courage at times when others may falter.

To start, the Olympics have begun in Tokyo. Almost exactly one year behind when they were supposed to begin, Americans and other athletes are competing in a most unusual competition. Without the roar of the crowd, or even family, nestled in the middle of a city and country in deep in the throes of COVID-19, the games go on for a worldwide TV audience.

I love watching Team USA and the more than a dozen Marylanders who are competing. Our own Katie Ledecky will be bringing home more hardware from Tokyo than most. It’s serious fun. Except when it is dangerous.

Early this week, after taking a turn during the start of team competition, gymnast Simone Biles had to step away. Recognizing the disconnect between her mind and body, which needed to be in sync for some rather dangerous maneuvers, she showed courage and strength by putting her health – mental and physical – first. Before doing any serious harm, she stepped back and encouraged her teammates to be their very best.

I still remember watching American gymnast Kerri Strug perform a gut-wrenching vault with a broken ankle to win it all for Team USA in 1996. As a nation, we cheered Strug’s pain-filled performance in Atlanta. Looking back now, did bringing home the gold mean so much that an individual’s broken body was irrelevant?

Simone Biles is perhaps the greatest gymnast of all time – the GOAT. She has maneuvers named after her because no one else has been able to do the same things in mid-air that she has accomplished. The “twisties” may be a cute-sounding name, but the result can lead to injury, and a worse result than not medaling in the Olympics.

Biles has been both lauded and attacked for withdrawing from Olympic competition. I am not alone in believing that having the mental fortitude to stop before serious physical injury resulted, and before it would be impossible for her team to recover, is courageous. It is the definition of heroic.

Even more, I am hopeful that Simon Biles’ spotlight on mental health becomes a learning moment for the nation where 1 in 5 Americans experience some mental illness, and opioid abuse and misuse continue to skyrocket amidst the pandemic.

Mental health and physical health are inextricably related. This goes for athletes in peak physical condition, as well as those of us trying to balance work and family during a global pandemic or in whatever passes for normal these days.

I look forward to the day when talking about a visit with a mental health professional is as routine as talking about a trip to the dentist or a primary care physician.

On the other side of the globe, at the U.S. Capitol, four heroes in blue – D.C. Metropolitan Police Officers Daniel Hodges and Michael Fanone, and Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn and Sgt. Aquilino Gonell – provided heartbreaking testimony in the first meeting of the House of Representatives select committee investigating January 6. They demonstrated a different kind of bravery.

Each of them described what they witnessed as the Capitol was being overrun on that dark day. Chilling body camera footage reinforced their words. The supposedly pro-law enforcement crowd – based on flags and signs – trampled and crushed these officers of the law, tased them, sprayed them with chemicals and called them traitors and racial epithets.

As these men courageously relived these horrible moments with the committee, one by one, they shared how incredulous it has been that members of Congress they were sworn to protect, especially on that day, now turn their back and try to whitewash or ignore these vile events.

Officers Hodges and Fanone, Dunn and Gonell and their colleagues withstood brutal physical and verbal attacks in defense of our democracy and our Constitution. As we learn more about the planning that went into this attack, Capitol Police officers and responding Metropolitan Police most certainly saved lives. At least 140 law enforcement officers were injured during what can only be described as an insurrection. Capitol Police Officer Brian D. Sicknick died while doing his job defending the Capitol. Within days, two responding officers, one from Capitol Police and one from the DC Metropolitan Police, would take their own lives after the experience. This was no peaceful tourist visit.

Thankfully, these heroes and their fellow officers held the line and our democracy lives on. For now. Earlier this week, Congress passed an emergency funding to help rebuild the Capitol Police after this deadly attack. Our legislation provides overtime, more officers, hazard pay, and retention bonuses for our Capitol Police officers, as well as additional funding for physical security upgrades to the Capitol complex.

The American people deserve a full and fair accounting of what happened on January 6, including details about those who planned and incited this insurrection, which was designed to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Republicans in the Senate blocked the creation of an independent commission to investigate the events of Jan. 6, using the 9/11 commission model, so I am pleased to see the House of Representatives is moving ahead and doing its duty.

I write about both a gymnast, who saved herself and her team during a serious competition, and police officers, who saved democracy during a riot, not to say the experiences are equivalent. They are not. However, more Americans probably know the name Simone Biles than would recognize Daniel Hodges, Michael Fanone, Harry Dunn and Aquilino Gonell. Without a doubt, more Americans watched the Olympic gymnastics competition than tuned into C-SPAN for the inaugural hearing of the January 6 committee.

Democracy, like gymnastics, takes hard work, dedication and lots of practice. Sometimes we get twisted up in our own head, but we find strength as a nation when we think of others and not only ourselves.

Team USA is a powerful force for good in this world, and we will continue to find heroes walking among us as we strive to reach that more perfect union.

Thank you. Get your COVID-19 vaccine, wear a mask indoors in risky environments, and stay safe.     

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Ben Cardin