Are We Wrong to Call All Soldiers Heroes?
My cousin Gary returned from Vietnam a broken man in almost every sense of the word. I never met him, but by all accounts the war shattered him. When he came home the people who fought to end Vietnam took what was left of him and finished what the war started. They treated him like he was everything they hated made flesh and it took the life out of him. He ended up freezing to death in lower Manhattan after shooting himself full of heroin and falling asleep. His story isn’t very different from any number of other Vietnam vets who were called baby killers and denied re-entry to a normal civilian life. It was a disgrace how this country treated those people who were drafted into an unpopular war. Gary wasn’t a hero, but he didn’t deserve to be labeled a villain. Near the end of the 1970s our society made an unspoken vow not to let that kind of disgraceful treatment happen to our armed forces ever again.
Fast forward to 2012 and it’s difficult to remember a time when we didn’t collectively refer to those who choose military service as heroes. It goes without question that they risk their safety to perform a duty for the common good and tossing the word around doesn’t seem to do anyone any harm. I, on the other hand, think it does a great disservice to active duty soldiers, veterans, and civilians alike.
Before he passed away I asked my grandfather if he was a hero. He’d served in two foreign wars, three theaters in total. His ship was sunk in the Mediterranean and he drifted in the oil-black water for days until being rescued; that’s when he earned his medals. He told me a story about how, early in World War II, he was tapped to operate a bulldozer after the success of the Guadalcanal campaign. He was assigned to shovel the bodies of Japanese soldiers into mass graves, sometimes fifty at once. He said the smell was so foul he had nothing to compare it to. He told me that seeing the faces of those dead soldiers up close made him realize that he’s fighting for survival and everything he did from then forward was just to get home in one piece. The idea that the wives of those men he sunk into that unmarked mud pit would never know where their husbands were laid to rest haunted him until the day he died. He told me he wasn’t a hero and to never call him that.
Perspective is everything to a deployed soldier. It’s important for them to keep a positive self-image, but showering praise on every member of the armed forces can lower the bar for professional conduct. Since we’ve been engaged in the Middle East a flurry gut-wrenching media has surfaced, starting in the early part of the decade with Abu Ghraib and continuing with American soldiers teaching foreign children racist slurs and Sergeant Leo Dunson’s candid camera style grenade prank on an unsuspecting Iraqi civilian. What are the consequences of their actions if no one finds out about them? If they’re able to fly under the radar of the international press they’re always going to be called heroes. When we use that word, for which there is no replacement in our language, to blindly label every service member we’re sending the message that all will be forgiven and that we don’t expect excellence from them. I expect my army, which is funded by our citizens, to conduct itself with respect and dignity at all times. Our armed forces should aspire to be heroes, not expect that status just by signing on the line.
At home our returning veterans struggle with the discrepancy between our high praise and the world they now live in. The truth is that the job market, military service or not, isn’t good and you can’t expect to exit the military and transition directly into paying work.
I routinely review resumes when staffing my businesses. When candidates don’t get the job I’ll write a personalized note thanking them for applying and explaining that my decision is based on industry experience. The only angry responses I’ve ever received are from ex-military who tell me they deserve the job because they fought for my freedoms. I never blame them for lashing out. It’s not their fault. It’s our fault for filling them with the idea that what they’re doing will translate into an advantage in any career they choose to participate in. It’s our fault for making them feel like “heroes”. The realities of civilian life more often than not don’t match up with what a hero feels they deserve.
In the first quarter of 2012 there have already been at least two nationally covered incidents of returning soldiers trying to integrate back into civilian life shooting and killing their wives then turning the gun on themselves. These tragedies happened in Alaska and Florida; one while the husband was participating in job training for motorcycle repair. On the 24th of this month a soldier in Tennessee shot his wife while attempting to kill himself and is now facing charges. What is he most worried about? Being forced to leave the army and not being able to find work. Last month, when Sgt. Robert Bales allegedly “snapped” and killed 16 Afghan villagers his Tacoma, Washington house had just been taken on a short sale. It was the second house his family owned, the first having been foreclosed on in 2009 by Bank of America. He and his wife had been betting on a promised promotion in rank to bolster their ailing finances. That promotion never came. Are we to blame? Are we, with the best of intentions, selling unrealistic expectations to potential recruits? Things like this just don’t happen to heroes! Words have the incredible power to color the way we perceive the world around us. If we’re not careful with our words there are consequences.
There’s also the harsh reality that once you’re out of the service you are no longer going to be taken care of. At a recent talk I gave at Occupy Orlando I met a man who is an Iraq War veteran. His leg was disfigured at the calf. I asked him if he got the injury overseas and he told me that he returned from duty without a scratch but was hit by a drunk driver. He couldn’t afford insurance and the medical bills were staggering. It’s a culture shock to be pumped up at every turn while in the army and then dropped back down to Earth with everyone else when you’re ready to leave.
Another side-effect of using the word “hero” based solely on personal risk in the course of a job is a demoralized civilian workforce. This distorted scale of recognition can lead to feelings of jealousy toward a perceived military “class”. Civilians who perform very dangerous but necessary jobs here in our home country shouldn’t be made to feel that their life choices are not as valid as someone who chooses military service. Security guards, electrical line workers, construction workers, miners, the list of jobs where people face injury and death every day to bring us the quality of life we enjoy is staggering. Still we single out those select professions, like military and police, to call heroes without question.
I have a friend who served in the Peace Corps after college. I didn’t ask him if I could share this story, so out of courtesy I’m omitting his name. He was assigned to teach in a small African country. He watched, helpless, as his friend was murdered by a gang of thieves. He was called back to Washington and underwent months of psychological testing in his fight to prove he could return to service and finish what he started with the children he’d been teaching. He finally won. Unarmed, he returned to that speck of a country. Every single day he lived in fear that those men, who he knew lived in the village, would come for him. He stuck it out and helped those children graduate. He returned to the states as a hero in every sense of the word. I call him that because he earned it. He pushed hard to go back and see his job through. It’s a story of fighting against the odds and against his better judgment to do what was right. It’s all too common in the Peace Corps, but we don’t regularly hear the word hero so easily applied to these courageous young people.
War is grim work and we shouldn’t play up the glory of it. Soldiers need to understand that vow they’re taking is a personal oath to do the unthinkable when it becomes necessary. They’re not there to provoke conflict, but to do their best to deter it until all options are exhausted. If they’re enlisting for the right reason you can be proud of the choice your brother, son, daughter, or cousin makes to join the military, but let them know you expect them to make you proud. Let them know that a hero isn’t something you can be by signing some papers and wearing a uniform; it’s something that you have inside of you that comes out when it’s truly needed. Make them understand they’re going to do a difficult job and that it’s not a shortcut to an easy civilian life, like some recruiters will tell them. Make the word “hero” something to aspire to and maybe we’ll be lucky enough to meet more of them when they come home.