SILENCING OUR HEROES by Marlow Carrels, Final year M. Div.

I am a veteran who is currently interviewing veterans for my Senior Thesis dealing with the Just War Tradition. From my research one statement resounded clearly from a former Staff Sergeant in the US Army: “I am not a hero and I didn’t fight for your rights to anything, stop calling me a hero and a savior. I did my job and that is all there is.” This sentiment was echoed by many I have interviewed.

So, this begs the question: Why do we call service members heroes? Certainly they are a small segment of the population, less than one percent, who leave family ties and their geographic “home” to be stationed across the nation and the world and possibly enter into harm’s way during their career to do their part in wielding the might of the United States Military arm…

But does that make each and every service member a hero? There are many civilian jobs where people leave their family and home behind to move across the country or world for better pay or simply because of globalization. There are many civilian careers that also carry inherent risk. In fact one could argue that there is literally an equal civilian counterpart to nearly every Military Occupational Specialty (MOS).

There is an MOS for personnel management, financial services, hazmat cleanup, firefighters, police, carpenters, machining, and mechanics; further there are civilian counterparts to special tactic Infantry units (Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Teams) and even mortar platoons as there are certain ski resorts that mortar avalanche zones prior to opening their lifts. While I am sure that there are MOS’s that do not have a counterpart in the civilian world, yet through my career in the Army I have not run across one.

Yet, in this reality it still seems that service members are placed on a pedestal and separated from their civilian counterparts. When asked, many civilians on the street will call a service member a hero, and when they are pressed further one finds that, often, the reason is because “They have sacrificed so much, they fight for freedom… and that’s why the VA and the Military will take care of them.”

This last statement is, I think, the real reason that service members are called “hero.” It is a way of separating those who serve from the rest of “us,” effectively turning the service member into a “them” that does not need to be heard or cared for. If the service member becomes someone greater than me, someone who is a hero, then I can believe that they have the superhuman ability to deal with their issues, or, at the very least, I can pretend that I am not qualified to help them deal with their issues because I am nothing like them. I can go on thinking that they are different than me, that they are better than me, and most importantly I cannot relate to them because my life experience is different (read “less heroic”) than theirs.

There appears to be a thought that every story that a service member is going to share will be one of war and gore and death. The humble reality is that many veterans do not see combat. They travel to combat zones and do their jobs, the same job they would do in an office “back home.” And while they are gone they think about who and what they left behind, and when they come home they have the same issues everyone else has. They worry about work, their family, promotions, finances, political affairs, and the pain of losing their loved ones to suicide, car accidents, heart attacks, and strokes. But many of us don’t know their individual woes. We don’t hear them… because we won’t hear them… We call them a hero and send them to the VA; to those who are “qualified.”

None of this is to say that there are not service members who are not heroes. There are those who ran into the hell fire of combat and died for their sister and brother on their right and left. There are those who slogged through mire and pain and were sole survivors of battles. There are those who have had a medal pinned to them after their death and those who had a medal pinned to them or hung around their neck after enduring things that I, another service member, can imagine but have not seen. I mean to take nothing from these brave women and men; they deserve the accolades. They deserve the name hero. But I cannot call them a hero in an effort to silence them, and often when one speaks to these men and women who have their service cross or star or V device for valor they will tell you, simply and clearly, that “I was just doing my job” and that “the real heroes didn’t come home on their feet, but under a flag.”

Service Members are just like any civilian, and often we are just doing our jobs. I encourage anyone reading this to become acquainted with the Centurion Connection. This is a new program provided through the ELCA that tries to bridge the gap between civilians and veterans, between pastors and chaplains, between heroes and the rest of us…

So how do we lift up the voice of the veteran in our ministry? How can we help the hero speak?

  • Start with the Centurion Connection, an outreach of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
  • Find out who has a military connection. Don’t simply focus on the veteran or the spouse; focus on the whole family… kids, parents, kin, friends…
  • Start an education system in your church, first about the military and the ELCA’s feelings, not your own feelings, about the military. Invite veterans to speak at some Adult Education classes on the hard decisions that people are coping with, the reality of moving, mobilizing, and feeling at home in a congregation.
  • Start a military ministry. The military has become disenfranchised and marginalized because many think “they” will be taken care of by someone else.
  • Send out care packages on Veterans’ Day to members who have joined the military, rather than Memorial Day, through their entire career. This will allow the member to know that the church is keeping up with them and caring about them on a deeper level. It is nice to know that people are praying for you, but few things remind you of home like a batch of cookies and lefse from the bake sale, beautiful fall leaves preserved and sent to you, fresh wheat, or simply a snapshot of the congregation on Veterans’ Day.
  • Create a safe space and time where vets—all vets—are welcome and can speak to each other and provide wisdom to youth who think they want to join the military.
  • Finally, thank veterans for their service, but don’t let that be the end of the conversation. Engage them about their current lives, not just about their time in service.
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