Veterans Day and the word “hero”


In 1991 my Marine Reserve unit was mobilized for Desert Storm. Sort of. The paperwork said it was for Desert Storm, but we got our orders the day the war ended. A week later my unit convoyed from Camp Pendleton to the Marine base at 29 Palms, California.

The day we arrived, the community was waiting for a different Marine combat unit to return from the war. Welcome Home banners were spread between light poles over roads, every bank and business in town had signs praising the Marines for their wartime service, and local civilians lined the streets waving American flags. We entered the base to the applause of people who thought we were returning heroes. In truth, we had watched the war on TV and only left home a week earlier. The community’s heartfelt gratitude, expressed to those of us who had done nothing, made me feel like a fraud.

Please don’t do that to other veterans today. Don’t make them feel guilty for taking the praise others deserve. And don’t think that you’re somehow slighting them by not calling them “heroes”. Keep in mind that most veterans aren’t heroes, they are simply men and women who have served honorably. There’s a big difference.

One night at a hotel bar before we went to Kosovo, I sat at a table with several Vietnam veteran police officers. They talked about their experiences and one-upped each other the way all Soldiers and cops do. “I was a Marine grunt at Khe Sanh, 67-68. It was rough.” “Oh yeah? I was artillery, near Da Nang during Tet.” “I was a slick pilot in the 101st, my Huey got the crap shot out of it several times.”

During that conversation, one gray-haired officer sat with a smile on his face, listening to the ground-pounders brag. Then he spoke up in an exaggerated, flamboyant tone: “I was in the Air Force at Tan Son Nut air base. Got a great tan.”

In the twelve years and two wars that have passed since then, I’ve learned that the Air Force Vietnam veteran had a much more typical war experience than the others at the table. Even in World War II, only a very small percentage of our troops actually faced combat. Most troops who served in Iraq and many who served in Afghanistan never heard a shot fired, rarely left the relative safety of a firebase, never faced anything more dangerous than occasional, inaccurate rocket and mortar fire. Those who left the wire to engage the enemy on a regular basis were a relatively rare breed.

Because of this, many of us in the military are uncomfortable when we hear civilians refer to all service members and veterans as “heroes”. Heroism isn’t a requirement to simply be in the military, or to serve in war. The jobs I did in Iraq and Afghanistan, which were nowhere near the most dangerous jobs in those wars, may have required instances of bravery but didn’t demand heroism.

When I evaluate true heroism, I always look to those who served in the worst, hardest wartime situations. My great uncle Leo Moreno was in the Bataan Death March, but apparently never made it to a prison camp. In 1942 my great grandparents received a telegram that he was “Missing, Presumed Dead”. His little brother was a Marine at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea, one of the Marine Corps’ legendary battles. Another of my great uncles was a paratrooper who jumped at Sicily, Normandy and Holland. I grew up across the street from a man who, as a 20 year old sergeant, took command of his platoon after it was overrun and led a counterattack against a North Vietnamese unit.

Those men were heroes. Most of us serving today aren’t. This weighs heavily on me every time someone shakes my hand and praises me for my service, because I’m worried they’re giving me credit for heroism that I haven’t earned.

This isn’t to say our troops haven’t made sacrifices. We all have. Many of us have given up time with families, missed births of children, been away when loved ones passed on. Marriages have crumbled under the strain of separation. Soldiers serving “safe” jobs have died when one of those random, occasional rockets landed close enough to envelop them in its killing radius.

But we aren’t all the same, haven’t faced all the same dangers, and don’t all deserve the same accolades. There are differences between those who face rare and random danger, those who go out daily to seek that danger, and those who willingly expose themselves to near-certain death in order to help others. Recognition of true heroism becomes diluted when a soldier who writes accounting reports at division headquarters is put on the same pedestal as a soldier who lost an arm throwing back an enemy grenade.

So what I’m asking is this: today, Veteran’s Day 2012, don’t call all veterans and service members heroes. If you meet someone who served or still serves and don’t know anything else about them, just shake their hand and thank them for their service. Don’t praise them for things they may have never done. Remember that most aren’t heroes, and even those who are probably don’t want to be reminded of it. Soldiers rarely earn the title “hero” on missions where everything goes right and all the good guys survive.

Heroism or not, this generation’s military service holds a deep meaning. Anyone who joined or reenlisted after 9/11 voluntarily joined a military at war. After the first few months of the Iraq War, they knew there is no completely safe job in the military. During my deployment to Iraq we had cooks and mechanics out on convoy escort missions. We saw Air Force and Navy convoy escort teams on the road. Units with the safe Cold War mission of driving supply trucks wound up performing some of the most dangerous missions and facing some of the most serious threats.

Every man or woman who left the wire, even one time, had the moment where they locked and loaded their weapon and mentally prepared for combat. Inherent in that act is at least the knowledge that you may have to sacrifice your own life for the lives of others. Some troops are more willing than others to make that sacrifice, but every single man or woman on every mission knows they may have to.

At the extreme end of that willingness to sacrifice are the rare cases where someone throws themselves on a grenade to save others. Somewhat less extreme are the thousands of cases of soldiers holding their positions in a dangerous, exposed area because someone has to cover that sector. Somewhere on that spectrum are Soldiers like my assistant team leader in Afghanistan, who yelled a warning to me to take cover from passing bullets even though he was in the open and more likely to get shot than I was. Somewhere on that spectrum is my friend DJ, who ran from his humvee to check on civilian truck drivers while his convoy was stopped and under fire. Those who never leave the wire may have to hold a perimeter during an attack, or leave the safety of a concrete bunker to account for their troops between rocket impacts. Even if a service member never leaves the United States, they still willingly assign their lives a lesser value than the lives of their comrades, and the lives of civilians. Other than jumping on a grenade, none of that is heroism. But all of it is service.

Those of us who serve or have served don’t deserve to be worshipped for the rest of our lives. The few who are truly heroes will stand out forever, but for most servicemen and women the military is just something that occupies a few years between high school and later adulthood. Most service members go on to lead lives indistinguishable from those who haven’t served. And we all know those few who were total screwups, joined the military, then came home and went right back to being screwups.

The one thing those different types of veterans have in common is one single decision they made: to put other people’s lives before their own. Some of them made that decision, never left the country and never had to test it. Some of them proved the seriousness of their commitment under fire thousands of miles from home. Whatever their experience, whether they proved their bravery in combat or never heard a shot fired in anger, whether they spent thirty years in the military and retired or served two years and did nothing but make bad life choices afterward, one special thing about veterans makes them worthy of your gratitude.

No nation can survive without those who are willing to defend the frontier against threatening hordes. A culture which lacks warriors willing to sacrifice their lives for the greater good can expect to last no more than a few decades. When our veterans made that decision to place your life before theirs, even if it was just for a moment, they were the giants upon whose shoulders this great nation stands. And that selfless moment of service, not heroism, is what they deserve to be thanked for.

11 Responses to “Veterans Day and the word “hero””

  1. 1 Heath

    I do believe that is the best that I’ve ever heard the topic explained. Thanks, my friend!

  2. Chris – I’m not really back yet – but wanted to let you know I think this is very well done.

  3. So true and well said. I would like to use this post in a professional publication for the Federal Law Enforcement Association.

  4. Well said. You write well, sir.

  5. Well said, Chris. You know, I was a “peacetime” vet in the 80’s. No fancy wartime medals for me, but I flew recon. More than once, we endured the high pucker-factor of a Soviet interceptor painting us with fire control radar, or going to tone-lock with missiles. But through it all we did our job (look up “Cobra Ball” if you want mission details). So, no, I wasn’t a hero, but boy do I get miffed when people go, “Oh, you didn’t serve in any war then?” and wrinkle their noses like I held a turd under it. My job, in the bigger picture, was to make sure we _didn’t_ go to war, or that if we did, we had a shitload more intelligence about our adversary. I don’t pretend I carried a rifle, kicked down doors, and terminated bad guys with extreme prejudice. I don’t pretend I was some dude that engaged in eight dogfights a day. I did my job (which would have been the same, wartime or not) and I did it the best I could. I don’t expect (or want) fawning adulation, but I must admit I get a little annoyed when folks treat you like a “fake vet” if you didn’t spend time in either sandbox.

    Ok, thanks for letting me get that off my chest 🙂

    • David,

      Glad my essay felt right to you. Although I think combat vets get credit for actually having done the job under fire, the fact that someone served in peacetime doesn’t mean they didn’t have the same level of dedication. As a former cop coworker and peacetime Army vet told me, long before the war on terror, “It ain’t your fault World War III didn’t break out while you were in the military.”

      For you, though? I’d say you’re not a peacetime vet. You served in an operational environment, there just wasn’t a declared war or conflict at the time.

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