04/13/2012 03:56 pm ET | Updated Jun 13, 2012

Patriotism and the Hero Factor

On April 16th, Massachusetts celebrates Patriots' Day, a local holiday that honors the start of America's struggle for independence. For the past thirty years, I've lived in historic Lexington, down the street from the site that marks the battle that sparked the American Revolution. Yet I have never felt more patriotic than the day I spoke before the Massachusetts National Guard and got to meet some of the men and women who serve our country today.

Having spent much of my career writing about gender equity issues, I love being surprised when my assumptions about a male-dominated environment are proven wrong. Standing at the security check point at the entrance to the compound, I was feeling a bit nervous about my talk for Women's History Month. This was my first address before a military audience.

The National Guard is 86 percent male so I wondered how they'd respond to a program about the 25,000 nineteenth-century convict maids who were transported to Australia as "tamers and breeders." Because the topic has to do with women's survival strategies, I felt confident that it would resonate with the military women. These impressive trailblazers now constitute 14 percent of the National Guard. I was equally impressed by the men. I have never been treated more respectfully. They "got" what I was speaking about -- one person making a difference, understanding poverty through a lens of compassion, and the resilience quotient, that x-factor that can pull us through impossible struggles and challenges.

Established in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636, the first of our Armed Forces, the National Guard, served in the Battles of Lexington and Concord. But that interesting historical fact is not what ignited my renewed feeling of pride in our country, which has been tested by stifling political divisiveness alongside the economic downturn.

As for Patriots' Day itself, even in a town nicknamed "the birthplace of American liberty," the occasion is often overshadowed by the excitement of an extra day off, the Boston Marathon, and the Red Sox game at Fenway Park.

The sense of patriotism I felt after visiting the National Guard was not about my country, right or wrong. And it had nothing to do with politics. It had everything to do with the conversations I had with Guard members who conveyed their unflinching sense of duty for doing the right thing in their role as ambassadors of good will.

Among those who welcomed me was 1st Lt. Ana Monteiro. Describing her year in Afghanistan and the long separation from her children, her first words were about the Afghan youngsters she met and the ongoing discrimination girls face from the day they're born. It took Lt. Monteiro's careful diplomatic maneuvers, executed with military precision, to ensure that donated books would reach girls for whom education is a luxury. She spoke with compassion as she described the Afghan women who suffer abuse and endanger their lives when they dare to find work that helps support their families.

A male officer voiced how humbled he felt in seeing the conditions faced by children -- the age of his own -- on the streets of Afghanistan. He discussed the theme I had raised in my talk about the impoverished and powerless in Victorian times, and related it to what Afghan women and children face today as they're caught in the crossfire between abject poverty and horrific policies toward women. Rarely have I met an audience so well-versed in recognizing the inhumanity in history that all too easily can repeat itself. This is the sentiment that seemed to steel the military parents in the room who spoke with admiration about the heroic adaptability of their families through relocations and long absences.

Each conversation conveyed pride in the National Guard and respect for one another. I saw examples of compassion among those who serve side-by-side. A soft-spoken sergeant picked up a copy of my book for a buddy who got into trouble and landed in jail. "He thinks his life is over. Maybe reading about the brave women you spoke about and how they turned their lives around will give him hope too."

I had a chance to chat with 1st Lt. Tania Carter, a single parent of two and sixteen-year veteran in the Guard. Having witnessed the plight of impoverished children, Lt. Carter founded the non-profit Princes and Dolls whose mission is to eradicate homelessness and human trafficking around New England, ensuring freedom and shelter for every child. As an officer and leader of a predominantly male engineering group, Tania is no-nonsense about her career as well as her personal humanitarian calling.

The day before my talk, Rhode Island National Guardsman Sgt. Dennis Weichel Jr. lost his life saving an Afghan child from being run over by an armored truck. The 29-year-old father of three sacrificed his own life to rescue a boy forced to gather used munitions as a way to survive.

Patriotism is sometimes elusive and not so easy to define. Sgt. Weichel's noble act gets to the heart of the meaning and exemplifies the purity of purpose for those who contribute selflessly as citizens of the world.