Jerry S. Parr, 50, lives in Gaithersburg and works in Washington. For the past 18 years, he has been a Secret Service agent; for the last two of those years, he has been special agent in charge of presidential protection. That was Jerry Parr, on Monday's videotape, thrusting himself into the line of fire so he could shield the president and shove him into the limousine.

Timothy J. McCarthy, nine years in the Secret Service and only 31, was the agent who immediately occupied the position between the president and the gunman. He assumed his post and absorbed a bullet through his liver.

In 17 good years on the Washington police force, Thomas K. Delahanty, 45, has earned a file full of commendations as well as the respect of his colleagues. While protecting the president of the United States, he was hit by a .22 bullet that had to be removed from his neck, not far from his spinal column.

The medical reports are encouraging. Both McCarthy and Delahanty, like press secretary Jim Brady and the president himself, are doing better than was at first expected. Maybe, we have begun to hope, after the suffering they and the rest of us will be able to celebrate their survival and recovery.

That's the way it was last January when 52 Americans returned home after spending two Christmases in cruel captivity. After their suffering, there was a celebration filled with fitting tributes to the patriotism and the guts of those Americans who had perservered. Those deserved testimonials must have been especially welcome to the men and women of the career Foreign Service. Foreign Service personnel have had very little experience in accepting public praise. Ridicule and mockery have been their regular fare; the cookie-pusher and striped-trousers set are not spoken about respectfully.

For some reason, we have overlooked the one demographic characteristic shared by 51 of the 52 repatriated Americans with Jerry Parr, Timothy McCarthy and Thomas Delahanty. It was nothing to do with race, region, religion or reading scores. Most generations and both sexes were represented in this very non-homogeneous group of 54 American heros. All of them, of course, did their jobs. They fulfilled their responsibilities, and then some. And each and every one of the 54 is -- are you ready? -- a public employee.

Public employees -- that indolent subspecies that candidates and commentators love to attack. You know the mindless public employees: You could line up an office full of them and clean their ears with one long Q-tip. Over and over we have been told that if public employees are not incompetent, they are indifferent and surly. And if they are not mindless sloths, then they have to be zealous meddlers, feverishly regulating American business right out of business. You've read of them, those faceless bureaucrats who've never met a payroll.

It's been a long time since any politician talked publicly the way John Kennedy did in his first State of the Union speech, when he said: "Let the public service be a proud and lively career." Not many of today's winning candidates borrow that line from JFK. In fact, along with WASPs, public employees must be the last remaining group in our society without its own anti-defamation department. Both those groups are attacked with regularity and without fear of reprisal. If half the things muttered about public employees were spoken about any religious or racial group, the speaker would be dismissed as a hopeless bigot.

So what of the 54?Are they simply rare exceptions? Then so, too, must have been Col. John Glenn, Sen. Arthur Vandenberg and Gen. George Marshall because they were all public employees. Dwight Eisenhower was a public employee and so was Warren Christopher when he negotiated freedom and so was Secret Service agent Larry Buendorf on Sept. 5, 1975, in Sacramento when he took a Colt .45 away from a Charles Manson disciple who was trying to murder President Ford.

Of course, there are indifferent, incompetent and surly public employees. Too many of them in fact. But surliness and incompetence are not entirely alien to our vaunted private sector either.

The next time we see a picture of a fire fighter risking his life to save a child or hear about a government worker's risking her career to blow the whistle, let's remember that both of them are public employees. And the next time someone starts in with the predictable blanket indictment of public employees, simply remind him of three names he should recognize: Jerry Parr, Timothy McCarthy and Thomas Delahanty.