The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia


July 5, 2014

A hero is more than a sandwich

From The Back Porch

— He was returning from leave after visiting his family on the West Coast. Within two months, he would be on a plane to Afghanistan. And he couldn’t wait.

Army Cpl. Haines sat next to me in the back of a big plane flying from Phoenix to Charlotte. He is a big guy but soft-spoken.

An architect by training, he had found that career unfulfilling. After considering military service for a while, he took the plunge, went in as enlisted despite his college degree and was accepted to the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell, Ky. I figured if anything happened on that plane, I was sitting beside the best person possible.

His deployment would be the one to theoretically turn out the lights on U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. His tour would be up in November, he said, when the last troops left the war-torn country.

Sometimes when I thank service personnel for their service, it’s an awkward exchange. They don’t quite know what to say because, to them, they are simply doing their jobs. It would be like thanking a custodian for cleaning the bathroom — which I also try to do frequently.

The hero status awarded every veteran may be misplaced, Army Capt. Benjamin Summers wrote in a recent essay published in The Washington Post:

“I have worn an Army uniform for the past eight years and deployed twice to Afghanistan. This doesn’t make me a hero.

“Many veterans deserve high praise for their heroism, but others of us do not. Infantrymen who put their lives on the line for a mission, aircrews who flew into harm’s way to evacuate the wounded, servicemen and women who made the ultimate sacrifice — these are some of the heroes I’ve been privileged to know. Applying the label ‘hero’ to those of us who haven’t earned it diminishes the service and sacrifice of those who did. It also gets in the way of constructive debate and policymaking.”

Summers is correct. The hero worship of the military is not a healthy thing, but it is the pendulum swinging back in the opposite direction from the aftermath of the Vietnam War in which all service personnel were excoriated. America’s conscience got the better of her, and now she is eager to accept and be thankful for what this all-volunteer force is doing.

Make no mistake. There is plenty of room for hero worship among the military. Last month, Marine Cpl. Kyle Carpenter received the Medal of Honor for massive injuries sustained in a November 2010 rooftop grenade attack in Afghanistan. He threw himself on the grenade to save a fellow Marine.

His colleague survived, and so did Carpenter after more than 40 surgeries and years of therapy and rehabilitation.

But regular people do heroic things all the time. In my dreams, I’m always the hero. By reminding ourselves of who heroes are and what they do, we hope that we will respond in like fashion when that moment comes for us.

That’s a good thing.

But I believe it’s also OK to appreciate the people who choose jobs that are necessary to our safety and freedom. Because of them, we don’t have to do those jobs.

The men and women who wear our nation’s uniforms may not consider themselves heroes, but I still appreciate them.

Happy Independence Day, Cpl. Haines, wherever you are.

— Young is a Register-Herald freelance columnist. E-mail:

© Nerissa Young 2014

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