Growing up in Tucson, the son of a Mexican mom and a Mexican American dad, Daniel Hernandez wanted to be a doctor, someone who helps people in dire need. By the time he’d been bitten by the politics bug and joined Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ campaign, he had no idea that the nursing assistant training course he’d taken in high school would come into play in the most dramatic way imaginable. Hernandez, of course, ran through gunfire to get to Giffords and helped Giffords survive those critical first moments before ambulances arrived.
At a time when celebs regularly rule the national consciousness, Hernandez, 20, has dominated headlines for the heroic nature of his acts. But he has repeatedly rejected the hero label—including at last night’s memorial for victims, headlined by President Obama. He talked to us about the most surreal moment in a beyond-surreal week, about what his parents taught him about service and humility and how he’s fighting to keep a tragic event and himself from being politicized.
What did you and President Obama talk about last night at the memorial service?
I didn’t get to go backstage and meet him one on one, so the only interaction I had with him was out in the crowd. We had a very quick discussion, but the main thing is that Gabby’s going to be fine, Gabby’s going to pull through. He was expressing thanks in a very gracious way for not just what I had done, but what everyone else had been doing. He was thankful for all of us.
Was that the most surreal moment for you this week?
Yes, having the opportunity to speak before the President of the United States, sharing the same stage with Gov. Brewer, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Attorney General Eric Holder, just to be with these people who have high positions and who I’ve admired for a long time; being in the same room as the president and two minutes before I go on stage, having someone come up to me and switching my seat because I’ve been asked sit next to him.
Where does your composure come from?
It’s just a coping mechanism at this point. If you allow yourself to be overwhelmed, then when you have to do something, you turn into this wreck. The last thing people needed to see was an emotional wreck because then it wouldn’t have helped anyone. What this entire program was about was trying to move the nation forward and doing it in a way that brought us together.
What did your parents teach you about what was important in life?
One of the things they always stressed is the importance of making sure you take care of others, especially those in need and that you need to be very humble in everything that you do.
Do you see yourself in a career in politics? There are comments online predicting you’d be the first Hispanic president.
I don’t necessarily know that politics is what I want to do. I know that public service is what I want to do. It all goes back to what I’ve been saying all along that the people who are the real heroes are the people who have been dedicated to public service, like Gabby Giffords, Ronald Barber her district director [who was wounded Saturday], Gabe Zimmerman her aide, who unfortunately passed away, and Pam Simon, who was shot and was at the front row of the memorial and kept wanting to get up for the standing ovation. These are the people I want to emulate. If I come close to emulating them, I think I will succeed in life.
Have you gotten a lot of feedback from fellow Latinos?
Although I’ve gotten a lot of recognition for being Hispanic, right now it doesn’t need to be about what sets us apart, but what’s bringing us together, and it doesn’t matter what the prefix in front of it is, whether it’s Hispanic or Mexican or African or Irish. The image of the front row last night was amazing because you had myself, a Mexican American, you had the first African American president, and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor [the first female Supreme Court Justice], who is an Arizona legend and the daughter of a rancher. I think when you were looking at the front row, you were looking at America, what it’s really become, people coming together regardless of their background.
You were a volunteer for Hillary Clinton’s campaign before joining Giffords's office. What drew you to public service in the first place?
When I was little, I thought I wanted to be a doctor and help people, which is why in high school I took that training program where I learned the triage skills that I was able to use on the Congresswoman. But then I started discovering politics and how that can also help people. I volunteered for Hillary Clinton because she was the first female presidential candidate. When I met Congresswoman Gifford, I was so inspired that I had to become involved in some way. It changed everything.
Of course your medical training did come in handy. Do you have a sense that you were where you were supposed to be, chosen for this moment?
It’s hard to deny that there was some kind of intervention, or divine providence or fate. There was something definitely at work. I wasn’t supposed to start my internship with Gabby until yesterday. But because they needed extra help, I was able to be there on Saturday.
At what point did your family know how close to danger you’d been and that you’d helped the Congresswoman survive and how did they react?
Almost immediately after it happened. Gabby is a friend of the family, so we developed a special bond, so they knew I would be there with her. Once I made sure that the EMTs were meeting her needs, I spoke to friends of Gabby’s who have the most access to her so they could call her husband, and then I made a quick 30-second call to my parents from the ambulance. It was basically, "I’m not hurt, don’t worry about me. I’m with the congresswoman. I’ll call you as soon as I can." Then I hung up. I was still trying to help Gabby.
In those first moments, you were on "go" mode and just seeing to everything. Can you even access right now what you were feeling?
In order to have been an effective person to be able to help at that point it was impossible to even acknowledge any emotions I had. It wasn’t just my boss, but my friend that I had admired for so long. I shut off my emotions because the minute I felt one, I’d be flooded and that wouldn’t have helped anyone.
How hard do you have to work not to have this event be politicized and yourself be politicized along with it?
It’s not about me and it shouldn’t be politicized at all. It’s inappropriate to bring up anything about being Hispanic, or about immigration or anything else. That’s not what our concern needs to be with right now. Our concern needs to be with the families who lost loved ones. We can discuss all the political ramifications later. Right now, the focus needs to be with them. We’re wasting time and effort on anything trivial right now. We need to worry about Gabby and the other people in the hospital who are going to have a long road to recovery. Wasting time on that only brings us farther apart.
When you think beyond this, what does normal look like for you when this all dies down?
At this point the most normal thing I can do is go back to school and go back to working at Gabby’s office. I want to return. I want to make sure that everything I do helps and impacts other people. That’s probably what Gabby would want. Her office was open at Monday at 8 a.m. It wasn’t a question of "Should we?" But, "How quickly can we get back to helping people?"