Sarah Ross

Consuming Heroes

At the end of this piece, the author, Sarah Ross makes a curious plea to readers: “We must tell men’s stories.” This might sound passé at best and dangerous at worst, given that recent discourse has mostly called to de-center masculine narratives. But the key to Ross’s plea is in what kind of stories she wants us to tell: “the real, full, uncomfortable ones.” The author of this piece is urging us to come to terms with the hidden suffering that many men face, unable to be vulnerable. And Ross follows her own call to action in the course of writing: Ross describes the stories of three men who were, in her view, “consumed” by Americans’ cultural expectations of masculinity. Post #MeToo, as we attempt to grapple with cultural misogyny and shift the narrative of what masculinity means, hearing the tragedy of these stories in detail is all the more important.

Uncomfortable Issue, 2013

On Feb. 14, 2006, Wyoming resident Colton Bryant fell from an oil rig in Sublette County, Wyo., and died the next day. The rig didn’t meet minimum safety requirements.

On Feb. 17, 2011, Dave Duerson, defensive back and safety for the Chicago Bears, sent a text to his family that read, “Please see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank,” before he shot himself in the chest.

On Nov. 20, 2010, Nic DeNinno, twenty-five-year old veteran of the Iraq War, lay in a bed in a psychiatric facility in Pueblo, Colorado with the doors and windows bolted to prevent him and other patients from jumping off of the six-story building. 

These men and the tragedies they endured are different. However, a thread links their lives and, in two of the cases, their deaths. Each individual provided something to satiate a societal appetite: Bryant provided oil, Duerson provided entertainment, and DeNinno provided security, and they were each damaged while providing their respective resources. They also all represent some idealized version of American masculinity: Bryant was a cowboy, Duerson an athlete and DeNinno a soldier. These romanticized versions of male American heroes are venerated to justify exploitation and to ignore how damaged many supposed “heroes” are. As consumers, we are complicit in this exploitation by remaining numb or conveniently ignorant to the repercussions of our appetites. 

The Cowboy 

Colton Bryant grew up in flinty-soiled, big-skied Wyoming. He tamed horses and went hunting and loved his truck. When he was 20, he went to work on the oil fields as his father had before him. He died in the middle of a windy, frostbitten winter when he slipped and fell off an Ultra Petroleum oil rig. Despite a yearly revenue of $592 million, Ultra Petroleum neglected to install the $2,000 safety railing that could have saved Bryant’s life. After his death, the governor sent a plaque to Bryant’s mother, thanking her son for his service and the sacrifice he made. 

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Driving through Wyoming is like driving on the bridge between what America is and what it is supposed to be. Out one window, there are wild horses running through sagebrush and small towns that smell like smoke and leather. Out the other is the Wyoming of quick fixes and fast food, of trailer parks where men working on oil rigs sleep. This Wyoming has towns devoted to refineries and oil pumps kicking into the night; it reflects a cultural insatiability for cheap and quick oil and natural gas.

In between Rawlins (home to the men’s penitentiary) and Laramie (home to the state’s only University) there is a town called Wamsutter, population 461, elevation 6,772 feet. Wamsutter sits on the uncharitable, rocky soil characteristic of Wyoming. The earth there feels like a crusty, thin shell, with a massive sky overhead. It is a shock, then, to realize what lies below this inhospitable, flaky land: oil and natural gas, the reason for Wamsutter’s existence. 

 Since the most recent natural gas industry boom in 2000, there has been a sharp decline in the quality of life in boomtowns and a spike in the loss of human life. When it comes to extracting resources from the earth quickly, the men who are doing the work are treated as expendable. Bryant was not an anomaly on the oil fields; his death was the third in six months on rigs contracted by Ultra Petroleum, and as the natural gas boom flares, Wyoming remains at or near the top of the national on-the-job death toll.

All Wyoming boomtowns have experienced an increase in crime, domestic violence, and drug use—meth use in boomtowns has increased 300 percent since 2000. In the past decade, 3,000 oil workers have moved to boomtowns in Sublette County to work on the rigs. The work is hard, the time off isolating, and many of the men have turned to some cocktail of violence and drugs to remedy exhaustion and loneliness. As one Wamsutter citizen once said to my family when we stopped there for gas, “We’re not supposed to do meth, and we’re not supposed to hit each other. If we can’t do that, at least give us a titty bar.” 

Some try to justify the presence and impact of extraction industries by evoking the tradition of the American West, calling the men who work in these industries the “new cowboys” and glorifying those who have died like fallen soldiers. The reality is that these men are treated as cogs in a machine to produce resources that America is addicted to. It is a comforting image to think that the men providing these resources are hard workers in a tough environment, but this image justifies our insatiable demand for resources. We are not breeding a new generation of cowboys (or heroes) on the oil fields, but one of broken, addicted men in broken, stopgap towns. To treat Bryant as a martyr for some greater cause is to ignore the corporate irresponsibility that caused his death and to diminish the damaging impacts the oil rigs are having on Wyoming boomtowns and the men who work there.  

The Athlete   

David Duerson is one of many National Football League (NFL) players to have committed suicide in recent years. Their deaths seem mysterious: why would some of the most successful, celebrated and wealthy men in the country kill themselves? And why would they kill themselves in such chilling ways: by drinking antifreeze or driving their cars into tanker trucks at 100 miles per hour? 

 As Mark Fainaru-Wada, the author of "League of Denial," explained in a recent NPR interview, these men suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a form of traumatic brain injury that occurs after multiple concussions or brain trauma from repeated pounding on the football field (the trauma is not unlike that experienced by soldiers shaken by bombs). Athletes who suffer from CTE can lose their memory or experience personality changes. The former center of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mike Webster, was a local hero and key to the Steelers victory in four Super Bowls during the 1970s. It was shocking when, according to Fainaru-Wada, Webster “lost all his money, his marriage, and ended up spending nights in a bus terminal in Pittsburgh.” When he died in 2002, an autopsy revealed that he had CTE. 

Duerson’s suicide note reads, “My mind slips. Thoughts get crossed. Cannot find words … feel really alone. Thinking of other NFL players with brain injuries … I think something is seriously damaged in my brain.” He was right—he was also found to have had CTE. Despite this disturbing letter and the fact that more and more football players are dying or undergoing extreme personality changes, the NFL vehemently denies that football is at all related to brain damage. In fact, after Webster killed himself, the NFL formed its own committee to research brain trauma. Unsurprisingly, the committee claimed that that there is no connection between football and traumatic brain damage. In fact, “the NFL went so far as to suggest that professional football players do not suffer from repetitive hits to the head in football games,” Fainaru-Wada said. 

 For a $10 billion industry like the NFL, maintaining a positive image is key to its success. The league doesn’t want public perception to change, and it is possible that the public may not want the perception to change, either. As Fainaru-Wada said, football is “a collision sport and its violence is loved by all of us who love the game.” According to Brian Phillips, a contributor to the sports blog “Grantland,” NFL players are talked about like “soldiers in the trenches.” He argues that there is so much pressure to be a “warrior” that vulnerability or a “lack of heroism” is punished. This is evident in the most recent NFL scandal which has developed throughout the fall of 2013: Richie Incognito has been accused of bullying fellow Dolphins player Martin Johnson after threatening Johnson’s family, leaving racist voicemails, and sending homophobic texts. Johnson left the team to seek emotional support, and reactions from athletes, fans and commentators have ranged from disdain to cruelty. Johnson has been called “soft,” a “grown-ass man who needs to deal” and a “coward.” In this hyper-masculinized sport with rhetoric that compares athletes to warriors, there is no room for the reality, which is that there is desperation beneath the guise of impenetrability that can lead to suicide. 

One of the most stereotypically masculine and American sports appears to be inextricably linked with the destruction of its players for our entertainment. An increasing number of men in the NFL are unable to drive, declare bankruptcy, and lose their families due to brain injuries sustained during their time playing professional football. As passive audience members, it is important to understand exactly what we are consuming and whom it is damaging when we recline on a couch to watch football.  

The Soldier

The dissonance between the myth and actuality of the American male hero is perhaps nowhere more pronounced than in the military, where rhetoric rarely matches action or reality. According to David Morris, Vietnam veteran and author, “Even as most Americans seem to agree that wars can be devastating to the people who fight them and their loved ones, the poor state of the Veterans Affairs system indicates that, as a society, we don’t feel much responsibility for such costs.” 

Men in the military are different than, for example, men on oil rigs. They don’t provide a tangible resource like oil workers do, and consumption does not fit into the equation as neatly as in the other examples. In the NFL and in the oil and gas industry, corporations’ best interests are served by sacrificing the lives and well-being of the men who sustain their industries. While soldiers are not working in the same industrial worlds, I would argue that it shares the blind desire for security and protection and a dearth of awareness surrounding the consequences of these desires that is having devastating effects on soldiers. In America, there is an ethos of protection at all costs, and the United States is very willing to engage in attacks against perceived and real threats (see: America’s decade long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama’s near-intervention in Syria). This feeling of entitlement to security-on-demand can only exist when we are at least somewhat unaware of the consequences of our demands. One of the many consequences are the soldiers returning to the United States with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Nic DeNinno is one of two million Americans to have fought in America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also one of the 20 to 30 percent of veterans with PTSD. Despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of veterans have PTSD, there is still a stigma surrounding those whose battle wounds are internal. According to a New York Times article by David Finkel, an author and military expert, “many soldiers with psychological injuries envy those with physical injuries, because those soldiers can see that something is really wrong with them.” Facilities like the one DeNinno stayed in are attempting to help veterans with traumatic brain injuries, but one in three homeless people is a veteran (96 percent of them men), many of whom suffer from PTSD or some other mental illness. 

During his stay in the Colorado psychiatric facility, Nic DeNinno wrote in his journal, “I FEEL SO FUCKING VIOLENT RIGHT NOW.” Another veteran at the facility wrote, “I still see the bombs, I see bombs all the time … make it stop … make the bombs go away. I don’t want to see them anymore. How do I become normal? How can I stop seeing bombs?” These men see dead babies and bleeding soldiers when they sleep. Some of them are unrecognizable to their families and friends, some of them are afraid of what they might do to themselves or others. 

There are two versions of the American soldier most often represented in the media and talked about. Both are represented as heroes and neither is the man writing about having war flashbacks. The first is the Army Strong soldier who is broad-shouldered, healthy looking and used to advertise for the military. The second is the soldier being mourned. It is a tragedy when soldiers die, and they should be grieved over. However, using soldiers’ deaths as an opportunity to promote a myth about the “heroic soldier” does a disservice both to the dead and to veterans. As a result, other soldiers, namely those who return with PTSD, are virtually ignored. 

It is easier to take responsibility for and mythologize the ideal of the hero soldier than to recognize that these damaged and ill men are an inevitable consequence of our demands for security. In other words, it is easier to mourn the fallen or celebrate a myth than to engage with those whose pain is our responsibility.   

The Consumer 

These three men were exploited for what they could provide. As consumers, we are complicit in this exploitation. Like the bumper sticker reads, “freedom is not free.” Our satiation is not free. As author Alexandra Fuller writes in her book "The Legend of Colton H. Bryant," “Boys like Colton Bryant are the beating hearts at the other end of every light switch we flick, every car journey we make.” 

Each of these men and their colleagues have been lauded as “heroes.” Calling these men heroes is to put them on a pedestal and disengage with their realities. In reality, society’s demands damaged them. This myth of the hero is inextricably linked with the way that American masculinity is constructed. According to Michael Kimmel, author of "Manhood in America," the stories of American men are not told: “American men have no history…we have libraries filled with words of men about the works of men … we have portraits of athletes, scientists, and soldiers … but such works do not explore how the experience of being a man, of manhood, structured the lives of the men who are their subjects.” 

If we call them heroes, the stories of Bryant, DeNinno and Duerson are not really being told; this myth justifies their continued exploitation by systemic structures that do not care about individuals. While this country is happy to claim the oil and gas production that makes our rate of consumption possible, our superlative military and the potently American NFL, we do not acknowledge the pain that is stifled and ignored behind the screens of our expectations of American masculinity. It is far simpler to not tell the stories of the men whose bodies and minds we are using for entertainment or convenience. By not telling their stories, we can talk about them as one-dimensional mythical creatures of masculinity that are impervious. 

The first step towards halting the violence and damage occurring in these explored areas is to open our eyes as consumers and engage directly with the pain we are causing and with the expectations and spaces we are leaving for masculinity in America. We must tell men’s stories—the real, full, uncomfortable ones.

Archival Issue | March 2019