It’s Veterans Day in the United States, a federal holiday when America asks her citizens to recognize the sacrifices of the one percent of the population who serves in the military. Veterans in the US today are in a much better position than they were a half-century ago, too. In fact, it was the tireless efforts of the Vietnam-era veterans who ensured that modern-day veterans would not bear the weight of the political ire for the wars in which they fought. So, while most Americans remain against the current war in Afghanistan, that disdain has not carried over to the troops asked to serve. Vietnam veterans are my heroes for that, but we should be very careful about how we use that term.
The word “heroes” is all over our veteran discourse, from the names of programs to help them to the way people merely talk about those who served. You will get no denials from me that many veterans act heroically and do so often. Yet, especially in today’s popular culture, the word “hero” is a loaded one. I know hundreds of veterans, and I’ve yet to meet one who would dream of accepting the label. Talking about veterans more generally, the term can actually hurt more than it helps.
If the most gung-ho veteran, chest full of awards, doesn’t feel like a hero, how might that word make less accomplished vets feel? For the vet struggling with mental injury, substance abuse, and thoughts of ending their life, saying that veterans are heroes could reinforce their feelings that they don’t belong. Heroes aren’t the kind of people who usually need help, and if they do that help comes from other heroes. Instead of boosting veterans up, it can leave them feeling more alone than ever.
If You Want a Hero Look to Fictional Characters, Not US Veterans
It may seem almost sacrilegious to say that fictional characters make better “heroes” than the real-world people of the US Armed Forces. However, the term “hero” seems more designed for people who aren’t real, because real people can let us (and themselves) down. For many of veterans, myself included, the only real problem with being called a “hero” is social discomfort. We recognize people are being kind, and it seems almost not worth the trouble to push back on the idea. Yet, for veterans who struggle with things like survivor’s guilt or post-traumatic stress, being called a “hero” can hurt.
Captain America or Superman can’t let you down. Sure, the actors who bring them to life or storytellers who weave their tales might. But these fictional characters are, always and forever, the paragons of virtue you love. However, real figures don’t work that way. Audie Murphy is a hero to other veterans and servicemembers. The most decorated soldier in history, he struggled his entire life with substance abuse, gambling addiction, and post-traumatic stress. Being called a hero didn’t lift his spirits, rather it felt like the heaviest award on his chest and one he didn’t deserve.
Personally, I believe that the modern hero rhetoric around veterans is more about civilians than us. After 9/11 America entered a period of war that isn’t over. Unlike in, say, World War II, average Americans were not asked to sacrifice in any way. So, perhaps it’s guilt that drives them to laud the efforts of the military so much, as Carl Forsling thinks it is writing for Task and Purpose. I don’t know but when I’ve been thanked for my service in person, I’ve also gotten the sense that it’s more about the person doing the thanking than me or my fellow troops.
US Veterans Need Your Help Not Your Praise
Some of you may be thinking that I am simple ungracious, and you may be right. However, what those of us who understand the problems facing veterans know is that we don’t need thanks nor praise. What veterans need is help. There are more than 40,000 homeless veterans in the United States (though I think that number is ‘soft’). Around 30 percent of veterans consider taking their own lives. Veterans suffer from addiction and substance abuse at rates higher than the civilian population. Yes, we get VA healthcare, but the VA is an underfunded institution crippled by bureaucracy and ignored by every branch of government. Every veteran isn’t a hero, but by god do we need some heroes. Lauding praise, especially that can feel undeserved, makes all of these problems worse.
As an unidentified Army Reserve Chaplain wrote:
“The stories that haunt soldiers are the stories of their own failures. The failure to protect their friends and subordinates from injury or death haunts soldiers, especially leaders. In combat, things happen so fast and with such force and violence that the memory of the event is burned in the mind. As that event is rehearsed in slow motion again and again, the soldier sees his failure to save his friend in slow motion. He will never tell this story of failure to his family. When this story plays on the secret youtube of the mind, he doesn’t feel like a hero.”
Finally, I am not suggesting that you can’t see your favorite as your hero. In fact, that sort of personal affirmation might have the opposite effect. For example, Kip Burke of The News-Reporter in Washington, Georgia wrote about this. He describes his brother, a Korean war veteran, as his hero. But what veterans need, whether individually or as a group, is something else. If you truly want to thank a veteran for their service, to honor their family’s sacrifices, then perhaps it’s time to make some of your own. This past year has seen an unprecedented amount of political action, from protesting to voter participation to engagement on specific issues. It’s time for civilians to demand that veterans no longer be left out of the conversation. Doing so might just be heroic.
Happy Veterans Day to all veterans, their families, and across the world. There is nothing wrong with taking a day (or two!) to celebrate. However, if you truly care about this community, remember to step up on the days that aren’t holidays.
What do you think? Share your thoughts, stories, and reactions in the comments below.
Featured image via Marvel Studios
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.