9/11’s got me thinking about a lot of things, but labels most of all.
Stick with me on this one.
Here’s the thing with labels: they sketch boundaries, and boundaries, by their very nature, are limiting.
Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, when I was a super-ninja for the Department of Defense, I put in for an amazing class. The Navy ran a Joint Network Attack Course (JNAC) out at Corry Station’s Center for Information Dominance. JNAC was precisely what you think it was, a bunch of nerds in a lab, recon’ing test networks, finding ways in, and then taking them apart. This was long before USCYBERCOM, before cyber was the new sexy, before Snowden and the NSA revelations cloaked the information superhighway in black. Competition was stiff, especially for civilians, and I had put in for one of two slots my agency was filling that year. I was desperate to go, spent days making my application package as watertight as I could. Once I applied, I settled down to waiting for an answer, doing my best to not think about the rejection I was so certain was wending its way up from Pensacola.
It was a lot like having my first novel out on submission. And, as with my novel, I got the brass ring.
I rushed home, cleared my calendar, started thinking of what I’d need to pack.
And that’s when the love of my life took a long look at the man she’d fallen in love with, compared him to the guy who came back from Iraq, and split.
I went to JNAC in a fog. Trauma will make you do crazy things. I started going to church. Every night when class let out, I’d go pray at the NAS chapel, and every Sunday, I’d go sit in some Methodist roadside house of worship that had seen better days.
I don’t mean to denigrate church going folk. I think it’s great for some folks. My point is, it wasn’t me. That’s how deep the rut went. I had, for a brief time, lost myself.
What I wanted, more than anything, was contact. I wanted to be around other people who I felt knew me and loved me, I wanted to feel known and accepted. I wanted to believe that, even if she didn’t want me anymore, someone else could. Maybe some part of me thought church could deliver on that account.
And I thought it was, when a stranger walked up to me with his little boy after services on my third Sunday there. He smiled, shook my hand. He noted my pack (what can I say, I have a tactical bag fetish) and asked if I’d been forward. I told him I had.
“See?” He turned to his son, pointing at me. “That’s a hero.”
And then he walked away.
I had never felt so alone in my life. The church slowly emptied around me, with folks smiling and nodding, a thousand miles away.
Ever have that experience where you think of a thousand things you wanted to say after the conversation’s over? That. I said them into the silence of the empty church. “How the hell do you know I’m a hero? For all you know, I spent my entire tour cowering under a rock, or murdering my shipmates and rifling their pockets.”
I was angry. Partly at him, and partly at myself. Cut the guy a break, he was only trying to compliment me, right? To show me respect.
And I know he was, and that’s great.
But here’s what he did. He slapped a label on me. I was a “hero,” and that definition encompassed everything he needed to know. There was no need to ask me questions. No need to share things about himself in the kind of exchange that keeps a conversation going. There was no need for anything at all. The label went on, and the relationship stopped there. Heroes aren’t people, they’re marble statues.
And marble statues don’t talk. They don’t cry, they don’t hug, they don’t eat. They don’t do much of anything at all, apart from stand still and inspire.
I’ve been called a hero a couple of times since then, and always by people who know nothing more about me than the cut of my uniform or the pin on my backpack. I smile and say thank you, because it’s a compliment, and I always try to respond to what I think another person’s intention is, even when the words themselves rankle me.
But every time I hear it, the sense of isolation returns.
I’ve talked to other vets about this, and I was surprised to find pretty broad agreement. Some of it’s impostor syndrome, the feeling that we’re unworthy of the praise, that if they truly knew who we were and what we’ve done, they’d use other words to describe us. But most agreed that the label closes the conversation, imposes an expectation of behavior that chills our actual personalities. Heroes don’t break down, don’t get drunk, don’t lose their shit in a subway car because it’s too crowded to be able to find a space to stand with their back against the wall.
They never asked for this. They don’t want to be heroes.
I don’t either.
When I look back at what I’ve done on deployment, there’s good and bad. There are shining moments of bravery and agile thinking, times where I can no shit look at a snapshot in time and say, “I saved that person’s life.” They are great moments, and they are always accompanied by a helpful dollop of impostor syndrome, so bad that it’s an out of body experience, with me observing some other guy who did this great thing, because it couldn’t possibly be me.
But there are plenty of other times where cowardice moved me in ways that still make me shudder, or when lapses in judgment colored my thinking to an extent that still chills me. Those are also out of body experiences, not because I can’t believe that it was me, but because I don’t want to.
And that’s the thing I realized: That heroism is in the act, not the person. We are ordinary people striving to do extraordinary things, and sometimes, rarely, we do.
Take my rank, for example. I’m a Lieutenant, or O-3. That’s a maritime rank. In the land or air service, I would be a Captain. But when people say that “I” am a Lieutenant, that’s not accurate. I hold a Lieutenant’s commission at the pleasure of the President. I hold it for as long as he deems I deserve to, and so long as there are jobs in the service at that level. It would be more accurate to say that I am not a Lieutenant, I am a person doing a Lieutenant’s job. If I am fortunate enough to be promoted to Lieutenant Commander, I will take a job at that rank. If there are no O-4 billets, I will be thanked for my service and sent home. My rank isn’t mine. It doesn’t stay with me. It’s a job title. It belongs to the service, and ultimately to all of you.
Heroism is borrowed from the people around us. They create the extraordinary circumstances that allow us ordinary folks to occasionally reach up and touch the stars.
No company grade officer worth his salt makes it to O-2 without knowing the story of Dick Winters by heart. I won’t recite the laundry list of accolades piled up by that amazing man. Ambrose and Spielberg did it better than I ever could. But I’m continually struck by perhaps his most famous quote:
I treasure my remark to my grandson who asked, “Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?” Grandpa said, “No… but I served in a company of heroes.”
And I think that, if I had been there to hear Winters say it, I would have noticed him putting emphasis on the word “company.”
I’ve done some things I’m proud of, and some things I’m not. Sadly, I’ve got more of the later than the former, but I think that might just be what it means to be human. To borrow a page from Douglas Adams, I’m just this guy, you know?
But I’m no hero.
And this 9/11, I’d ask that you remember that when you deal with veterans.
Getting to know people takes time. Getting to know people takes work. People are messy. We’re complicated. We defy expectations, labels. We amaze and disappoint. We’re an unanswered question. You have to sit with the discomfort of not knowing what to expect from us until the long hours or months or years go in until you begin to.
But if you’d honor who we are, what we’ve done, try.