Served with honor, if not heroism, but they don’t offer first pitches for that

Are you sitting down?

OK, here goes: Contrary to the current American drumbeat, not all of those who serve honorably in the U.S. armed forces are heroes. In fact, I would guess that very few deserve that epithet, either because they never found themselves in a situation that called for heroism, or because when they did, the instinct for self-preservation prevailed.

This is on my mind because of the opening of the major-league baseball season, with its flag-draped fields, its pre-game rituals honoring “the troops,” and the heroes themselves throwing out the ceremonial first pitches. This, of course, is not unique to baseball. These days a salute to the military can flare up at just about any public event. Somehow, we've become a nation that worships the military. Compare that to the 1960s and '70s, when people in uniform were derided as “baby killers.”

Were the wars in Iran, Iraq and, now, Afghanistan any more just, or any more logical, than the Vietnam War? I don't think so.

Sipping their beers, the spectators at public events large and small now hoot and holler and clap their hands for “the troops.” After all, a little cheering, a slight delay in the main event – that's not too high a price to pay for freedom, is it? And it's certainly easier than questioning the U.S. government policies that land us in wars of dubious purpose.

Before you accuse me of sedition, let me point out, for what it's worth, that I speak from personal experience. I spent two years during the Vietnam War aboard the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal, and was honorably discharged from the Navy in 1969.

Like most people who have served in the U.S. armed forces throughout history, I, aside from a few bar fights and some anti-American rock-throwing Turks in Istanbul, never found myself under hostile attack during my time in the Navy. But danger was always a possibility. In fact, the year before I joined the Forrestal crew, explosions and subsequent fires on the ship in the Gulf of Tonkin killed 134 sailors and injured 62 more.

When, after basic training, I filled out my duty-preference paperwork, I requested sea duty, while most of my mates sought stateside shore duty. I knew that serving on a ship was more likely to put me in harm's way. So, did asking for sea duty make me a hero? Not remotely. I was motivated not by patriotism, but by a thirst for adventure. I was 18 and barely had been out of Detroit. That last thing I wanted was to spend my hitch clerking in Norfolk, or Washington, D.C.

I mingled with sailors mostly, but met soldiers, Marines and airmen along the way. Many, like me, signed up simply because they were looking for something new and exciting. Some were avoiding the draft, and an automatic ticket to the infantry in Vietnam. Some joined as an alternative to prison. Some were itching for a fight. Some were in because their fathers and grandfathers were in. Some couldn't really say why they were there. And some felt an honest-to-goodness obligation to serve their country.

There might have been some heroes among these troops, but I would guess that most of them, if not all, served their time honorably, but not heroically, before returning to civilian life.

It's often been said that people need heroes. Maybe that's because we want to believe that humans - all of us, perhaps - are capable of willingly putting ourselves in jeopardy for the benefit of others.

No doubt the current pro-military fervor can be attributed, at least in part, to the suspension of the draft. It's much more convenient for us to support the troops, and their dubious missions, when we know that we, or our loved ones, can't be pressed into service in dangerous places. Those who serve do so voluntarily. As long as we can keep it that way, let's cheer them on; let's call them heroes.

We toss the word around like confetti. It's used to describe not only everybody in a military uniform, but firefighters, police officers, teachers, a group of third-graders who raise money for a hospitalized classmate, and, yes, athletes. So, the word becomes more and more diluted, which eventually renders it meaningless. If everyone who volunteers for the military is a hero, then what do we call the person who risks enemy fire to drag his wounded comrade to safety?

A superhero?

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Fri, 04/25/2014 - 12:23pm
An excellent article; I'm putting the finishing touches on my book on recollections of my year in Vietnam as a flight surgeon. The boredom affecting armed forces personnel, the prevalence of VD, heroin epidemic, the genocides and atrocities that we perpetrated, screw ups from sloppy and negligent commanders and procedures, the....... Only about 5% of our soldiers in Vietnam ever humped a rifle out into the boonies, and the M16 didn't work, so what good were they? The pictures and films that Americans saw each evening on TV were staged..... Onward! I need to go through editing this beast one more time!
John Schneider
Fri, 04/25/2014 - 3:23pm
Good luck with your book, Erwin.
Fri, 04/25/2014 - 1:28pm
Mr. Schneider's point that the word 'hero' is overused today does have some merit. However, while not all those in the military, or who have served in the military, including Mr. Schneider, might have done great deeds of bravery, they are still heroes in the sense that they serve as role models. Simply stated, being in the military means you are willing to lay down your life for your country, and/or for others in defense of freedom. In this same way policemen, firemen, teachers, and even third graders, can be heroes when they exhibit heroic traits -- bravery, self sacrifice, loyalty, etc. At the same time, I think Mr. Schneider's statement that "we've become a nation that worships the military," goes too far. Respecting and honoring those who serve, is certainly not worshipping the military.
John Schneider
Fri, 04/25/2014 - 3:27pm
I guess "role model" must be a matter of timing, Gus. During the Vietnam War, very few civilians would have pointed to the men and women in uniform as role models.
Sun, 04/27/2014 - 9:51am
A very vocal minority certainly did not see men and women in uniform as role models during the Vietnam War, but the silent majority did.
Fri, 04/25/2014 - 4:04pm
Everyone that does a good deed these days in whatever profession or volunteer activity they are in can get the "hero" tag by the media so that it has become close to a meaningless cliche.
John Schneider
Sat, 04/26/2014 - 8:52am
Exactly, ***.
Sat, 04/26/2014 - 12:49am
I wonder where the cynicism came from. With his concern for the use of ‘hero’, I wonder how he defines ‘hero’. For me a hero is judge by the situation and what the person has or is doing. For me a hero is a police officer who each day goes out to face the unknown, they may never be in that life threatening situation and yet they have to be psychologically prepared for it. That police officer has to prepare themselves and their family for the reality of their work, how can I not consider them as heroes. Oh, I can see how a soldier under fire who goes in to carry out a wounded buddy in Mr. Schneider’s eye is a hero, but I don’t see them as the only heroes. If Mr. Schneider is truly interested what to call those who put themselves in jeopardy for other, such as in combat, he should ask those who he deems heroes. I suspect they will be less cynical than Mr. Schneider and will see how people who make sacrifices for others are heroes. There are different degrees of risk associate with their sacrifice and it can’t be quantified to fit one definition, so I believe that heroism comes in many forms and sometimes it is demonstrated by simply showing up. If you have any doubts about how broadly heroism applies simply talk to a parent of a child who has only known physical pain, for me the parents and the child are heroes For me hero isn’t an overworked word, it hasn’t been diluted, there are too many heroes that we never know about to worry how someone else uses the word. I believe that there is a hero in each of us and it is only needs the situation to allow it to be seen. Mr. Schneider seems quick to dismiss why soldiers go to war, or why those in combat choose to risk their lives. The way Mr. Schneider frames it, “And some felt an honest-to-goodness obligation to serve their country.”, I can see why few would admit to doing it for country and freedom. I wonder how much time he has taken to talk to and listen to those who did serve in combat to try an understand their why’s, because in spite of Mr. Schneider’s perceptions I believe it was easier to get out of combat than it was to get into it. I would even offer that those who served on the ships such as the aircraft carriers were working in high risk situations. From the little I hear and see on the evening news about those serving in the far-flung places around the world and even here at home they are making sacrifices, and their families are making sacrifices, for our country. Mr. Schneider may not feel that deserves being called heroes, but again it comes back to his definition of hero. As for why the swing in public attitude from how Mr. Schneider felt the Vietnam era veterans were treated and how veterans are treated now has nothing to do with the draft. If anything it seems to have to do with media’s attitude and what they want to report. Does Mr. Schneider forget that it wasn’t that many years ago that the media was making it a big issue to spread pictures of the flag draped caskets across the front pages and TV screens? In the 70s it was about the protestors. I won’t talk about the value of the wars now and then because I doubt Mr. Schneider is interested, for if he were truly interest in why those soldiers went to war again and again and risk their all he would take the time to talk to them and to listen to them. I disagree that the service of those who signed up of their own volition and those who were encourage or selected to serve were any different. It seems to me that those who knowingly go into harm’s way (including those here at home) are making a choice for others and that deserves respect if not special praise.
John Schneider
Sat, 04/26/2014 - 8:54am
I agree that they deserve respect, Duane.
Sun, 04/27/2014 - 8:00am
I was a REMF in 'Nam as were / are 90% of those who serve in the military. I was talking with a combat medic at a book signing for a book he had written, and mentioned that I served in the rear taking care of helicopters. He signed my book "for what you did, I am eternally grateful, and alive". Made me think that no matter what we did, we were all necessary cogs in the wheel, none more or less important than the others.
John Schneider
Sun, 04/27/2014 - 9:59am
"Cogs," indeed, Rich.
Le Roy G. Barnett
Sun, 04/27/2014 - 3:40pm
I could not agree more with John Schneider. The word "hero" has been cheapened by overuse. I spent nearly four years in the Army and in that time never met a hero (I did, however, encounter some inspiring officers). All of us theoretically had the potential to be heroes, but the circumstances that would have admitted us to this select status never materialized. Some have said that just by volunteering to serve our country we are qualified to be called "heroes." Sorry, but I'm not buying it. My approximately four years of active military duty for America is a bargain considering what the United States has done for me. Besides the G.I. Bill, bonus points on Civil Service exams, special discounts, and free burial in a National Cemetery (to mention just a few benefits), the "Land of the Free" has allowed me a life style envied by most of humanity. If there is a hero in all this, he is called "Uncle Sam." He gave me so much, and in return all I had to do was serve his interests in uniform for 1/18th of my life. What a deal!
John Scheider
Sun, 04/27/2014 - 4:56pm
An honest, realistic assessment, LeRoy.
Mon, 04/28/2014 - 1:17am
Le Roy, What is the criteria you use for a hero? I have met a few that had that ribbon with the V pinned to their chest and they never felt they were heroes. I have met a few that everyday they go out into our communities having to prepare themselves for that situation where it will be life threatening and they never consider themselves heroes. I have know a few who prepared and supported their loved ones to go off to put themselves in harms way for others and they never consider themselves heroes. I think of those parents who care for a child that has suffered throughout their lives and I have never hear them call themselves heroes. You may agree with them, I don't. For I see them and many others who sacrfice for others as heroes. I don;t see the flash and bang that the evening news likes to show as the only situation that produces heroes. If anything those who are heroes in battle are the easy heroes for they know what to expect and what is required for they have most likely seen it before and delt with it regularly and know who and why they are doing it. It is those who do it for a faceless others in the everyday and seldom if ever have confront the situation before who are also heroes. There are those that apply the label of hero to some I may see as being not what I would expect as a hero and yet there are so many we never see that are heroic that I will not say the term is overworked or that certain individuals aren't heroes.
Sun, 04/27/2014 - 7:50pm
Just accepting the draft was not a ticket to an automatic assignment to Fort Polk for infantry training. I just took what came, and was a medic assigned to a small ward in a camp south of Nha Trang , close by the South China Sea, with bonus duty as a fill-in Dust Off medic with the 283rd Medical Ambulance Company, Dust Off. I was under mortar and rocket fire frequently on the ground and you can imagine the incoming fire we took on the helicopter rescue trips out to the Central Highlands and wherever a firefight broke out and we had to go get 'em. Nobody ever called me a hero because I wasn't one. There's no record at all of my being involved with the 283rd but for the little knife with their insignia on it that a fellow medic gave me for helping them out at times. I received a badly cut thumb during a mortar shelling but I was ridiculed by my tough 1st sergeant when I checked about a Purple Heart. With him, you better be wearing a bullet hole if you wanted a Purple Heart from his outfit. I agree, we are not heroes, very few are. Baseball great Bob Feller got upset when he got called a hero, it really offended him, but he was a true military wartime hero in reality. Bob Feller said "The heroes are over there; they did not come back." So maybe that should be the standard. And actually, a drunken fellow veteran did call me a hero one time . I was simply embarrassed, for him and for me.
Mon, 04/28/2014 - 9:44am
I was the flight surgeon with the 25th med detachment attached to the 201st aviation battalion in Nha Trang, 1970. The army and airbase there must have been enormous but had shrunk greatly by my time. My book has to do with the nitty gritty rear echelon stuff and its sleaze, failures, swindles..... Did you get to Francois, Fragate's or the other great restaurants? Nha Trang was a resort under the French, they kept Vietnamese off that beach near which your clinic was located. My dispensary was co-located with the Air Force's on the Air Base. The Swiss microbiologist and physician who discovered the cause of Plague spent nearly 50 years in Nha Trang and is buried there. Gotta get back to editing this thing; maybe the 10th go round.
Mon, 04/28/2014 - 3:23pm
We were discouraged to eat downtown but we once went to the Nha Trang Hotel for drinks. That place was for dignitaries and US officers, with world-class beautiful women attending to a man's needs for a hefty price. Not for us, we left quickly. We were enlisted men. You certainly remember RMK Construction, the outfit in charge of maintaining the US airbase. Those people, mostly US civilians, were making huge piles of cash from Uncle Sam's teat. We were friends with one young RMK worker, making a huge salary, tax-free, and on the side moving huge quantities of illicit drugs in and out of the airport. One day a Nha Trang policeman shot him dead as he sped away on his motorcycle, we never knew exactly what had just gone down. I had the task of loading his body from the street into our ambo. Straight into a body bag , then out on the next plane. You could make a fortune if you could smuggle US cash into Nha Trang. A candle shoppe downtown would trade piasters for US dollars, you could take the piasters elsewhere to a bank, and write a check home for the exchange rate, something like that. Again, I was scared I would get caught and thrown into the stockade. I always kept my nose clean. Selling our rations of beer, cigarettes, and soda downtown was a huge corrupt business as well. The Black Market was huge.
John Q. Public
Sun, 04/27/2014 - 9:25pm
Why do you hate the troops?
Burt Thomposn
Mon, 04/28/2014 - 6:47am
I understand what you are saying John Scheider and I agree. I am very proud to be a veteran but I feel very uncomfortable with the attention. I echo what Le Roy G. Barnett stated, as I served two years active duty onboard the USS Nimitz and four years reserves which allowed me to graduate from college with no debt thanks to the GI Bill plus the Navy's Sea College program. Whenever someone thanks me for my service, I thank them for helping me pay from my college education. The only danger I was in while serving was the inherent danger of living on an active aircraft carrier. It was a job and I got compensated very well for it. There are many civilians working in more dangerous jobs and conditions than most of us that served in the military did. With that said, I have a very profound respect for those who have served in combat and behind the lines in the special forces. These are the people that are true patriots.
John Schneider
Mon, 04/28/2014 - 10:47am
Burt: I, too, got a bachelor's degree out of the G.I. Bill. Plus, I saw a pretty good chunk of the world. No complaints.
Linda Gibson
Wed, 05/14/2014 - 11:21am
Dear John, You have nailed it. The media is responsible for so much of this business of lauding the military. I see the military as a necessary part of the U.S., but not all of our wars have been necessary. There were no WMDs found in Iraq, nor did anyone from Iraq attach the U.S. Similarly, the Afghanistan invasion has been a mistake. Why, then, do we call our soldiers heroes, when we actually invaded another countries for no reason. Yes, Saddam Hussein was a terrible dictator, but shouldn't our focus have been to fix our own country, feeding our hungry and restoring our infrastructure? Our roads are so bad, we're beginning to look like a 3rd-world country, not to mention our lagging schools, which need a complete overhaul, so that high school graduates come out with skills. But I digress. Soldiers can be heroes if they protect us from invaders. But I find it disingenous to praise unnecessary invasions and killing. Osama Bin Laden is dead--why are we still in the Middle East? Thank you for having the courage to write about this.