Some heroes are veterans. But not all veterans are heroes.
"Those of you who complete this training will have earned a title. You won't be heroes. You'll be Marines. If you want medals, you joined the wrong branch. You'll perform heroic deeds, because that's what Marines do. But don't expect to be recognized for them." And with words to that effect - along with a healthy dose of profanity - we were "welcomed" into Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) San Diego by a snarling Gunnery Sergeant Drakesford. Boot Camp went downhill from there.
Thirteen grueling weeks later, we graduated. No longer regarded as scum of the earth, we were Marines. Military Occupational Specialties (MOS) were assigned and advanced training began. I was a rifleman (0311), the backbone of The Corps, a lowly but honorable profession. And I would soon be deployed to Vietnam, where 50% of us would become casualties. To better my chances of survival, I volunteered for specialized training as a scout sniper. With the completion of sniper school and jungle training, I was then sent overseas, where I served my full, one-year tour in a regimental sniper platoon with some of the gutsiest kids you can imagine. None received medals, and none were heroes. But all were brave, and all were heroic. They were Marines, then and forever. And once discharged from The Corps, they could also claim the title of "veterans."
Some words have very specific meanings, folks. And some words when used sparingly can be quite powerful. According to the dictionary, a veteran is "a person who served in the military." That's it; nothing more. That same dictionary describes a hero as "a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities." To be recognized as a hero is a very rare honor that should be bestowed only upon the deserving few. So tell me, just how did "veteran" become synonymous with "hero"? I've known a lot of veterans, more than enough to know that not all veterans are equal. But I've known damned few heroes, and most of those are dead. Personally, I find the overuse of the word "hero" to be embarrassing at best, patronizing at worst. I know of not one honorable veteran who considers himself a hero, not one. Proud? Yes. Dutiful? Most certainly. Patriotic? Without a doubt. But never a hero. To a veteran, that word is reserved only for the best of us. And to have served our country with honor is sufficient.
So why do our countrymen insist on calling us heroes? Was it 9/11? A lot changed that terrible day when a self indulgent America became exposed to its own vulnerability. Some people even now call those stockbrokers and office workers heroes just for being attacked. I don't get it. Except for the courage of the first responders and a few civilians that day, I know of no heroic acts. Survival is an instinct, folks. Heroism is a choice.
Or maybe it was because the military went from a draft to a lottery system to an all-volunteer army. With only about 1% of the American people currently serving in our nation's military, I guess I shouldn't be that surprised to see veterans misconstrued as heroes. But what does that really say about patriotism?
And then there's Vietnam. We fought honorably, but were treated dishonorably by the same people we were defending. Perhaps, the overuse of the word hero is merely an overcorrection to that. Isn't it ironic that those who maligned us during our war now call their own kids and grandkids heroes just for serving?
OK, so now that America has determined that a hero is nobody special, what should we call that brave kid who assaults a machine gun knowing that he'll likely die? Or that soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his buddies? Or the medic? Or the pilot? Or the POW? The word hero is so watered down now that it's practically meaningless. And I find that terribly disheartening. America will always need heroes, folks, but real ones are preferable.
In a couple of months, we'll once again be celebrating Veterans Day. We'll be regarded as heroes by the public for simply wearing the uniform and loving our country more than most. By today's standards, I suppose that's heroic. I don't want to seem ungrateful, folks, but those of us who served know better. Some heroes are veterans. But not all veterans are heroes. And I'd like to keep it that way.
See you on Thursday.
Don Dorsey, President
The Austin Chapter of Texas Association of Vietnam Veterans (TAVV) meets Thursday, September 11, 2014 - 7:00 pm at VFW Post 856 — 406 E Alpine Rd - Austin, Texas 78704.