“I’m not a hero. I just happened to be the medic there that day,” said former Army Staff Sergeant Ronald Shurer, who received the Medal of Honor from President Trump in October. Medal of Honor recipient Clint Romesha denied hero status in similar words, “I’m not. I don’t feel that way. I never have.” Sal Giunta, yet another Medal of Honor winner, said “The fact that someone would call me personally a hero seems inappropriate.” These sentiments are echoed down the line by military legend after legend varying only in the specific words chosen – Dakota Meyer in Afghanistan, Dick Winters in WWII, William Henry Johnson in WWI.
They say, over and over again in the most unambiguous terms, that they are not heroes.
The problem is, we don’t listen.
The news is currently alive with story after story detailing Trump’s endless attacks on deceased “war hero” John McCain. Gillette’s latest ad campaign targets the military with the tag line “Every Hero Sweats, Some Never Show It.” On March 13th, Kansas City celebrated a “K9 Veterans’ Day” honoring military dogs who they term heroes.
The unrequested label is applied again and again by a political left still riddled with guilt over how it treated warriors returning from Vietnam. It is applied by a political right that views the military as a club it can use to beat its opposition. In applying the hero label, society takes possession of those who’ve served.
I was called a hero too, as I sat in the post chapel at Naval Air Station, Pensacola, desperately trying to find my footing after returning from my 3rd spin in Iraq. A man noticed my ruck, which still had my blood-type tag on it, and asked if I’d been “down range.” When I said I had, he looked at his son and said, “See? That’s a hero,” and walked away.
I have never felt more alone in my life.
War scours everything away. It breaks a person out of the bonds of shared experience with their non-military communities. You are removed for months or years at a time from the quotidian linkages – the regular doings in the company of others that give rise to inside jokes, “Oh man, do you remember that one time” stories that knit people together. Your friends and family love you, but they also have lives to get on with while you’re gone. This disconnection is far more damaging than the flashy causal factors of PTSD – the sight of death and mutilation, the acknowledgement of your own hand in that destruction. It isn’t just that you are made to kill and break other people and their world, it’s that you’re ripped out of your own.
That man in that chapel meant well when he attached that label, but he made me a thing of marble, an icon no different than a flag or a plaque. You don’t get to know a statue. You don’t connect with the humanity of an eternal flame. I didn’t want to be hero. I wanted to be a person again. Just like I was before I left. Just like that man still was.
That human connection is what is meant by “coming home.” When we are seen as humans, we are seen as fallible, error-prone in everyday ways that the label of “hero” covers up. There is a reason that modern TV dramas like Game of Thrones are so immensely popular, they portray characters striving toward lofty ideals and failing in ways so relatable that audiences connect fundamentally with the story – knights sworn to uphold honor who are slaves to political expediency and their own lusts, decent people who see their plans fail because they lacked the Machiavellian instinct to play to win. They try and they fail, just like we do. But it is in the fact that they do not always fail that we can draw inspiration.
And here the cult of the military hero commits its first two great crimes:
First, it erases the humanity of service members who desperately need to be treated like everyone else. This is critical in the midst of a staggering rate of veteran suicides, roughly 22 each day. These people aren’t being driven to desperation by a lack of parades, or a failure to give them three minutes of applause on Veterans’ Appreciation Night.
Second, it robs others of the chance to be genuinely inspired by real heroism, the rare times that we as fallible, relatable human beings, dug deep and found a way.
In a 2013 interview I talked about how I was horrified by what I did in Iraq, and how I was immensely proud of what I did in Iraq. I made mistakes that will haunt me the rest of my life. I also made calls that saved lives. If the man in that chapel in Pensacola had sat down and asked me, I would have told him this. I desperately wanted to. But he didn’t. Most folks never do.
And it is this failure to ask that leads to the third crime of the cult of the military hero – The weaponization of the hero label in service to a political cause. And so it is that I find myself repeatedly reminded that kneeling NFL players, who I enthusiastically support, are somehow insulting my service. That questioning Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher’s hideous decision to reenlist beside the corpse of an ISIS fighter he had killed with a knife is an affront to the heroism of military service, rather than an honest reckoning with the humans who serve. That opposing former Navy SEAL and congressman Dan Crenshaw’s ruinous right wing policies isn’t just political speech, but a violation of something sacred. Because the hero label curtails my speech – There are things heroes must do, and that means there are also things heroes must not do. Because what’s important isn’t who heroes are to themselves, but who they are to everyone else. Here, the hero label is put to work excusing evil, making it not just dehumanizing, but also fundamentally dangerous. When we apply the label of hero, we make the veteran pay first, but in the end the cost is shared by all.
Asking questions, getting to know another human being in all their complicated glory is hard work. The application of the hero label is far easier.
But it serves no one. Not the veteran, who is denied their humanity and the desperately needed and potentially life-saving chance to rejoin the dust of the world, to be granted the thing war takes from us – the privilege of being just like everybody else.
Not the rest of the public, who are robbed of the opportunity to draw real inspiration from the actual and occasional glorious acts of fallible humans with whom they can identify.
And not the political narrative, which leans on the cult of the military hero to advance some of the most divisive agendas of our time.
We volunteered to do a job. You paid us to do it. Sometimes it was hard and dangerous. Other times, it wasn’t.
The United States has been at war continuously since the 9/11 attacks, over 18 years now. We are streaming home each day. We want to come home, to really come home, but we can’t if you don’t let us.
We’re not heroes. We’re people, just like you.
Stop Praising Us.
Start Seeing Us.