Military veterans deserve respect, but don't call all of them heroesWidespread respect for military veterans is at the highest level I can recall — at least since I had to register for the draft more than 55 years ago. In almost all cases this respect is deserved.
Widespread respect for military veterans is at the highest level I can recall — at least since I had to register for the draft more than 55 years ago. In almost all cases this respect is deserved.
If you’re at an airport and one or more soldiers, sailors or airmen show up in uniform, you’ll likely hear spontaneous applause from civilians there. Go to a restaurant in uniform and folks may compete to pick up your check.
At a ballgame anyone in uniform is likely to be treated like a hero, with TV cameras trained on them sometime during the game. News stories toss that word “heroes” around loosely, applying it generally to anyone in the military — often used also for those who served in the past.
Younger Americans can’t recall when there was a military draft. Though males still must register with Selective Service when they turn 18, there’s no draft to take them to war against their will.
Yet almost all of us are well familiar with the sacrifices a minority of Americans have made in recent years — with some making two, three or more tours in Iraq or Afghanistan. That service leads to death for some and to separation from families for almost all.
The fact these people volunteered for the service shouldn’t diminish their sacrifice. It just means we can have a professional military without drafting people.
But there are some things people who never served in the military, and thus are not familiar with how it works, should know.
One is that not everyone who wears a uniform should be called a hero. To do so diminishes a word that can properly salute those who go above and beyond the normal sacrifice. Even service during wartime shouldn’t automatically label someone a hero.
Duluthian Mike Colalillo, who won the Medal of Honor for World War II service, is properly called a hero. Read his citation for that highest medal and you’ll agree.
My late friend Chet Brooks was in the 101st Airborne Division in World War II, guys who parachuted behind German lines before other troops landed at Normandy in the 1944 D-Day invasion. They did this at night and, it turns out, with terrible military intelligence about the situation they were jumping into.
Chet later fought in the ill-conceived Operation Market Garden and then in the Battle of the Bulge, where the final German push of the war was turned back. Chet Brooks was a hero.
I served for four years in the Navy, with a small part of my service after the start of the Vietnam War. So I’m a Vietnam vet, but I was no hero. My biggest danger came walking to my job at the Pentagon across busy streets in the Washington, D.C., area.
Besides widespread misuse of the term “hero,” two other things concerning current military people bother me.
Wartime action can stress those who experience it. But I worry that people both in and out of uniform have created an expectation that most soldiers will suffer mental anguish when they return from the war. I grew up surrounded by World War II vets, some clearly troubled by their service, but the large majority took off the uniform and went to work while raising families, creating today’s Baby Boomers.
I was also troubled recently to read that 45 percent of the 1.6 million who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are seeking compensation for injuries they say are military-related and claiming an average of eight to nine ailments.
By comparison, World War II and Korean War vets claimed an average of two such injuries and those who served in Vietnam cited an average of four such problems.
It will be a big mistake if our reverence for the service of those who protect us and our rights creates a permanent class of citizens who just can’t cope when back in civilian life. I hope that’s not happening. Clearly some discharged vets deserve further help, but not 45 percent.
Society must take a realistic, not an emotional, look at what military service is like and what society owes those who made that sacrifice.
Budgeteer opinion columnist Virgil Swing has been writing about Duluth for many years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.