Now that I am a veteran, it occurs to me (to my great satisfaction) that I no longer have to care about things like Department of Defense guidelines and the “acceptable use policies” that govern the online behavior of those who remain on active duty.
During my time serving, most of my readers know I skirted that line quite often but now I can just write whatever I think about much of the colossal stupidity that passes for “honor” and “service.” In that regard, I’d like to talk about how lame it was, and still is, to be called “hero” when folks learn of my time in the army.
But first, two stories. In my first year as an enlisted soldier – still in my initial entry phase at Fort Sam Houston, my company was marched down to one of the on-post theaters to fill up the seats. This is common practice when a speaker is coming and they need to fill the room with the smiling faces of soldiers for the cameras. The guy that was speaking was a chief warrant officer who had been shot to pieces on some battlefield in Vietnam and was awarded the Medal of Honor. Our drill sergeant, right before the speaker arrived revealed to us whey we were being forced to give up a Saturday afternoon.
Some guy is coming to speak to you this afternoon. He was a medic in Vietnam and got shot up pretty bad and pulled his buddies to safety. I guess that makes him a hero or something. I don’t really get it, but whatever.
At another spot in my training, just a few months prior I was near the end of basic. We had finished our field training exercise and as we rounded the corner at the end of the ruck march back to civilization, we were funneled into a large bonfire area with a stage in front. There was rock music playing loudly and the officers of the battalion were all at the front cheering us on, congratulating us, giving speeches. The drill sergeants surrounded the event, with looks of disgust. You could see this was not their idea. They could not wait until the officers released us back to them. And they did, I thought they were going to kill us the way they went off.
Both instances gave me the impression that there is nothing heroic about simply accomplishing what you signed up to do. And that there is an expectation that even if you get all your limbs blown off dragging your buddies to safety, all you did was what was expected. Doing whatever it takes to accomplish the mission is not heroic.
As I left active duty, one of my parting shots that I tried to share with the newer, younger officers and soldiers I encountered was basically a version of this speech:
We (the military) currently enjoy an enormous amount of positive regard from the general American public. They call us heroes everywhere we go. We are untouchable in the eyes of many–a group that has reached sacred cow status. But we can lose that high regard, and the American public will turn on us in an instant. I have already started to see it. Every time some veteran claiming special status because of his “PTSD” I can sense the cringe. I can see the looks on their faces. Oh great, another one of these supposedly traumatized soldiers gets special treatment.
Most of the time, they would look at me with the sideways, confused dog look. As if no one could possibly ever get tired of soldiers and their bullshit. I guess time will tell.
I’m no combat veteran. Sure, it says I am on my DD214. I get to call myself that. But please. I have been outside the wire a total of three times, and the scariest thing that ever happened to me was listening to small arms fire plinking the side of our Chinook. No real danger. In fact, we thought it was funny and we took selfies.
Silly Haaji. Don’t you know you can’t shoot down a Chinook with an AK47?
So maybe some of my consternation is my own guilt over having never actually faced the enemy on the field of battle, engaged him while he engaged me, and came back alive. Maybe I wish I could tell people my story before they say “thank you for your service.” I usually just grunt and awkwardly turn away.
But from my perspective, no duty bound personnel, should ever be called a hero in the course of doing exactly what they are called (and paid) to do. I reserve the term for the guy–not in uniform–who runs into a burning building and starts pulling people out who he has no fiduciary responsibility to care about at all. No oath bounds him to run into that building. He takes a huge personal risk to save people he does not know.
What about Dave Sanders, who died protecting students at Columbine? Similarly, Liviu Librescu at the Virginia Tech massacre. These folks were thrust into a situation, and when the time came to make a decision, they suspended all thoughts of danger to themselves, with no statutory obligation to do so.
Or people like Chiune Sugihara, or Paul Rusesabagina–people who were in exactly the right place, in the right position to do the maximum good for a large amount of people–again at great personal risk to themselves with only morals to guide them. I could only dream of having the heroic ethos of people like them.
My friend and former colleague Zeno Franco and his associates have been trying to wrestle with the definition of heroism for quite a while. He was thinking about it a lot, way back when we were in graduate school together. I think their efforts are interesting, but the quest for the heart of the matter will, I am afraid, elude them forever.
The duty bound personnel may sign up for firefighting, police work or soldiering because of an inordinate amount of altruism, belief in something greater or an extra helping of courage. Or they just have a really high appetite for risk. Either way, if they turn their back at the moment of truth, they will be branded a coward, as it should be.
All the others I listed, had they saved themselves, no one would have noticed or judged. They did something that no rational person would do, to save strangers.
And those of us who “served” know it. So the next time you see a soldier at an airport, think twice about the hero crap. You will probably avoid an awkward situation and most likely they just want to be left alone.
Am I proud to have “served?” Sure. But only because I managed to provide for a family without breaking any laws. But the plumber and the guy who dug my well do that too.