What is a Veteran and Why are They Considered Heroes?

In the United States, we call people who have been in the military veterans just as a colloquial term. A “veteran” of anything is really just someone who has experience in something, such as a “veteran” teacher being someone who has been in education for 10 years or so, “veteran” nurse, being someone with more than a few years experience in nursing. At some point, and I am not sure why, “A veteran” with no other qualification became generally understood to be a military veteran. I can’t really tell you when or why that happened. I suppose it came from people who “veterans” of a particular war, having experience with it, that then stuck for all others.

As to the second, and much larger question, and I will also qualify assumption, not all veterans are considered heroes by many people. I personally wouldn’t qualify all of them as such, speaking as a veteran of the Iraq War myself. Some of them are nasty, brutish people deserving of little praise, respect, nor honor. I’ll qualify that statement to make clear that it has nothing to with whether a military service member were able to deploy or participate in combat. Some people are just terrible human beings no matter if they have been in the military or not. That said, apart from me there are many non-veterans who don’t believe veterans, as a class, are heroes either. In the three years that I have written on Quora I have personally been attacked I have no idea how many times. As an example, this comment came in just yesterday:

And, of course, there’s no shortage of idiot 18-25 year-old kids who will buy whatever line their government sells them, and happily be cannon fodder, because ‘merica.


I frequently receive this sort of attack which I usually just report and block the source, and I am just happy that Quora doesn’t allow anons to comment, otherwise I know I would have left it long ago. Since I came home from Iraq, when I participated online I’ve been called names and accused of many things, not the least of which being asked to answer the question Murder: What does it feel like to murder someone?. While many people see the numerous efforts by varying groups and individuals to thank veterans, particularly those who took part in the wars, for every hundred or so that publicly acknowledge what we did favorably, there is one person who very blatantly slaps us in the face with their disapproval of us or what we believe. Sometimes, it is very hard to remember the hundred people who said “Thank you”, when their efforts are completely overshadowed by just one who called you a murderer.

Having said that, there is a question of why there is so much positive attention given publically to troops that deserves to be answered, or at least attempted to answer. In some cases, this is a welcome acknowledgement, in others it is downright shameless marketing. Last year after the Super Bowl I gave this answer Jon Davis’ answer to How do military veterans view the manner in which the NFL attempts to associate its brand with the military, particularly during the Superbowl? I’ll share this except here:

… it is a completely rational choice for the NFL to choose military to be the group they would want to associate themselves with. The types of people who support the military fall neatly into many of the demographics. They really should be supporting the military, but then again so should every other company that enjoys the freedom of American patronage, customer base and the most secure and profitable economic environment on Earth. But that is besides the point. As long as they keep doing as much as they are doing to make sure that the people of the military are still part of our thoughts, they don’t overstep themselves in literally comparing themselves to those same member and are sincere in their efforts, then I wouldn’t have any problem with using my efforts to ensure they are profitable.

We’ve seen dozens of commercials that thank troops, letting you know that Company X supports troops. Many of these I’ve noted involve actors and production units who did very poorly with unresearched acting, incorrect uniforms, and simply seemed to be communicating to civilians “we love troops, shop with us”. Many pulled from a base that was just a few miles away in the middle of California, asking them to say hello to someone back home, implying to the audience that these soldiers were overseas. One even went so far as to imply that the troops on a ship were overseas with the scripted “I’ll be home soon,” from a sailor, unaware that his message would be used to imply something other than that this ship any future out to sea than San Diego Harbor. I’ve seen few of these commercials go so far as to send actual crews to places like Iraq or Afghanistan, which has many secure areas for their civilian crews, Letterman did a whole week live from Iraq for goodness sake, to connect actual military families. Instead, they do the cheap and easy way of attaching themselves to vets, while leaving actual troops feeling taken advantage of. It’s worse if you look at corporations who advertise how much they “endeavor to hire veterans” while showing no evidence that they do in the slightest. I’m putting Chase bank on the altar of public humiliation for this one. I’d like to see of independent third party evidence to support their several years of claims that they did so. Stereotypes around vets, particularly those returning from recent wars have made such individuals virtually unhirable.

So, yes please note that while you see a lot of thank yous going out, a great deal of it is just branding for military sympathizers.

Having said that, there are many actual military sympathizers out there who say “Thank you” with the best of intentions and in complete sincerity. I think these are the people this question is honestly asking about. If I were to venture a guess as to what these people’s motivations were I would narrow it down to three things:

People were very scared after 9/11

This section will be short because it requires little understanding. People get scared. 9/11 was this era’s Pearl Harbor and woke millions to the reality that they aren’t as invulnerable as they once were. For the first time, really since the Civil War, the idea of our prosperity, our businesses, our livelihoods, and our very lives being taken from us was a reality. Now that there was a very obvious enemy that existed, there was really only one source to provide protection, as well as what many people wanted even more, retribution. That was the United States military.

In a way different from wars and conflicts like Grenada, the First Gulf War, and Vietnam, Americans very much felt the justification behind war. There wasn’t any misgivings around why it needed to happen in the months following 9/11. Most people couldn’t really do anything about that. The military was in a position to give them that sense of security and satisfy their need to see vengeance dealt to those who would attack us.

I don’t think it would be a lie to say that many people felt helpless following 9/11. The military was our arm to reach back and deliver a message that events that robbed America of 3,000 of their own wouldn’t be tolerated. For many, not feeling helpless was something that gave them a sense of security and retribution. In a small way, I think that many responded to this sensation though gratitude to the military, as it gave them a sense of empowerment in a very, very turbulent and unsure period of American history.

Many people feel horrible for the treatment of Vietnam Veterans, as well they should.

In studying veterans since leaving the military myself, I’ve noticed the drastic change in how veterans were treated from my war, the Iraq War of 2003-2011, as opposed to the war of my father’s generation. He was a Green Beret who trained many soldiers who went over to Vietnam as a hand-to-hand knife fighting specialist. In trying to understand him better, I realized the level of social harm inflicted upon soldiers of that era upon their return for what was realistically, political grievances.

On returning from Vietnam minus one arm, I was accosted twice by individuals who inquired, “Where did you lose your arm, Vietnam? I replied, “Yes.” The response was, “Good. Serves you right.”

– James W. Wagonback, quoted in Bob Greene’s Homecoming

Richard Gabriel describes another experience featured in Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s On Killing

The presence of a Vietnam veteran in his uniform in his hometown was often the occasion for glares and slurs. He was not told that he had fought well, nor was we reassured that what he had done only what his country and his fellow citizens had asked him to do. Instead of reassurance, there was often condemnation, “Baby Killer”, “Murderer” until he too began to question what he had done and ultimately his sanity. The result was that at least half a million and perhaps as many as one and a half million returning Vietnam veterans suffered some degree of psychiatric debilitation called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, an illness which has become associated in the public mind with an entire generation of soldiers sent to war in Vietnam.

As a result of this Gabriel concludes that Vietnam produced more psychiatric casualties than any other war in American history. Numerous psychological studies have found that this social support system, or lack thereof upon returning from combat is a critical factor in the veterans’ psychological health. Indeed social support after war has been demonstrated in a large body of research by psychiatrists, military psychologists, Veterans Administration mental health professionals and sociologists to be more crucial than even the intensity of combat experience. When the Vietnam War began to become unpopular the soldiers who were fighting that war began to pay a psychological price for it – even before they returned home.

Another segment of On Killing provides additional examples of the deep traumatization and scarring as a result of the hostile and accusing homecoming for the nation in which they had suffered and sacrificed.

The greatest indignity heaped upon the soldier waited for him when he returned home. Many veterans were verbally abused and physically attacked or even spit on. The phenomenon of returning soldiers being spit on deserves special attention here. Many Americans do not believe, or do not want to believe that such events ever occurred.

Bob Greene, a syndicated newspaper columnist, was one of those who believe these accounts were probably a myth. Greene issued a request in his column for anyone who actually experienced such an event to write in and tell about it. He received more than a thousand letters in response collected in his book Homecoming. A typical account is that of Douglas Detmer.

“I was spat upon in the San Francisco airport. The man who spat on me ran up to me from my left rear, spat, and turned to face me. The spittal hit me on my left shoulder and on my few military decorations above my  left breast pocket. He then shouted at me that I was a Mother F’ing murderer. I was quite shocked and just stared at him.”

Speaking from my own personal experience as a returning Iraq War veteran, I can only say how profoundly different my experience was from someone who would have joined during Vietnam. Besides the few who are unafraid to comment online, I was warmly welcomed by many casual acquaintances, thanked and admired in ways I could have never imagined. The greatest of these was upon returning home during leave after my first deployment. I went to the church where I had grown up just down the street from my house. At the behest of my mother, I wore my dress blues uniform. While there, the preacher acknowledged me in front of the congregation of around three hundred people from my small town and asked that stand to be recognized. The congregation clapped and stood, giving me my first standing ovation at the age of 20.

I never received public face-to-face condemnation for my participation in the military during the War on Terror. What I had endured online was by people who I could see didn’t really matter anyway and only had the courage to speak through the mask on online distance, a factor my studies have taught me is an import factor in empowering troops in combat as well. In spite of them, I was always overwhelmed by the support of wellwishers and fans, both American and, much to my surprise, from all around the world. I always felt that I was loved and respected for my brief period of service and I know that support helped me move on from a great many burdens I carried. I’m now one of the proudest people I know to have served. I can’t imagine a world coming home to what the Vietnam veteran returned to. It must have been like returning from Hell only to experience a second circle of it, one in which the tour of service would never end. While there is nothing I could do or say for them I can only say how extremely thankful my reception has been, not only for my happiness, but for my psychiatric health as well. It should be noted that my father, the trainer of soldiers who went to Vietnam, never actually went himself, even being a member of the Special Forces community. He still suffered greatly in his later years, eventually succoming to deep seated pyschological damage and alcoholism. That may have brought about for many reasons not related to the military, but his involvement in the Vietnam war, as an “accomplice to murder”, may have had a deeply profound and negative effect on him that reverberated in him for decades. Eventually, his alcoholism took his life when he died of cirrhosis of the liver. He died a miserable and lonely man, a fate that was unfortunately not unique to him, but shared by many, perhaps statistically too many, fellow veterans from that period of the American military.

The only guess I can make is that one of two things had happened between my father’s time and my own, or perhaps both; either the public has come to realize that the way in which they treat returning veterans has far more impact on the degree of traumatization they receive than the veterans’ experiences in combat, or they have come to realize that warriors of the United States are not the representatives of the people who sent them there. I have no evidence to support my first theory, in fact, if movies and TV are any indicator, there is no common knowledge of phenomenon at all. Most people would have never have considered themselves possibly culpable of damaging the health of a military veteran, but the evidence shows they are. The second seems very plausible. It seems to me that, perhaps in the presence of imminent threat, such as that caused by 9/11, people knew that the troops were necessary and even when the war became unpopular, the sentiment that these individuals fighting it deserved respect never dissipated. I will say this though, there is still a massive number of post combat sufferers of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. If what was learned by Grossman’s studies of the warrior experience on the warrior’s psychological health is to be trusted, then the huge number PTSD patients existing today should lead us to ask ourselves not what the government, or the military should be doing for returning for returning veterans, but how have we personally welcomed them back?

While I can only say that the treatment of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is worlds better than that of Vietnam veterans, I’d still suggest that for the sake of any potential veteran’s health, it might not be that important for you to join in the chorus of voices repeating commonly known tropes, and even a few myths, about the current wars we are engaging in or which many young veterans are still dealing with internally. An example of this is the Quora question With the benefit of hindsight, should America have invaded Iraq in 2003?. For a point of reference, my own answer, as the only active participant in it, is ranked 20th. Of the other 58, only one other posts the possibility of it being a productive conflict (ranked 16th) and only one other is neutral on the matter (ranked 30th). That being said, what value do the 50 people after the original several arguments against going to Iraq feel they are offering to the debate? This sort of virulent “Me too!” form of unproductive debate and suppression of alternative opinions, views, and outright facts, I fear may be damaging to our returning veterans. I don’t believe this is the same kind of damage that was done to the Vietnam veterans, but it may be used as evidence one day that when subsets of a culture makes it so vehemently clear to veterans that it doesn’t support what they sacrificed so much for, whether they showed outright hostility to them individually or not, will produce the same or similar psychological damage as those who did. I’m not asking people to not argue against war or to not have a point of view, but in the future of conflicts that will come about, please consider if your voice is actually adding anything to the debate, or if it just more noise that does little to help your, but that echoes violently in the mind of the participants who took part in it.

Please ensure that your facts are correct, that your words are more than just empty rhetoric and additional noise, and mostly that you communicate your concerns with compassion to the participants who took part in it.

There is a selflessness inherent in the volunteer warrior

I want to ensure that I stay on topic with this one and attempt to communicate this without trying to make myself and others sound like we deserve the hero mantle. I want to talk about the nature of selflessness.

Selflessness is the attribute of someone who places someone or something at greater value than their own well-being. By itself, it isn’t really a trait that is heroic. We see it in people who are in love, parents, and great leaders. What they put in front of themselves may be many things; their family, their nation, an idea, or even a company. As with many leaders of many organizations, their obsession to success goes beyond greed, but into a true passion for success of their idea and a better world it may bring. That’s selflessness too. Most people don’t understand selflessness though.

Today’s world is one built on materialism and individualism, two cultural traits that represent the antithesis of selflessness. I’m not saying that I don’t like our culture. I love the things that the progress of our world have brought me. I’m sitting on my computer in my comfortable climate controlled living room (as opposed to the freezing temperatures outside) and could just as easily as writing to you, be watching a movie or streaming Netflix on the TV to my side. It’s a great time to be alive. I’m certainly not saying I am selfless either. I consider myself often very selfish, self-centered, and a narcissist, but in one regard, I am different from most other people. At one time, I was willing to endure great hardship for a set of ideals which included the risk of my own death. Such an idea is something most people will never experience. To be honest, I am glad of that.

Returning to the time when I received the standing ovation in my church, one might think that would have been one of the proudest moments of my life. It wasn’t; in fact, it was one of the most humiliating things I have ever endured. I didn’t expect it and then when it came, I felt a complete sense of embarrassment and the desire to not be the center of attention. I felt guilty about it for years. I wasn’t able to relieve the guilt until I met a friend of mine who, on that same day, had recently returned home from a mission trip to Romania. That was an act I thought deserved more recognition in a church than going to war, but, as far as I knew had received none of what I felt. Years later I saw him at a wedding and I was finally able to tell him that I felt he deserved the recognition and that I did not. Only after that was I able to feel good about having ever received it at all, and look back on the event without the sensation of guilt.

I’ve also noticed this same sentiments in other veterans, as well. I recently gave a review of the new movie American Sniper. In it, I was surprised to see this sentiment lived out by the films main actor, Bradley Cooper.

In that scene, Cooper displays classic signs of a veteran who doesn’t enjoy being thanked. He immediately deeply retreats upon being recognized and becomes politely evasive. His speech breaks down into monosyllabic chirps of general acknowledgement, while not maintaining eye contact and attempting to not carry the conversation further. While I’ve never saved anybody, I’ve had this experience dozens of times when random strangers thank me for my service. You really can’t describe the feeling that follows, but last Veterans’ Day when my boss made a big deal about thanking me in front of all my students, a motive I am deeply appreciative of, I was overwhelmed with a feeling I can only describe as a profound and sudden sense of humiliation which I can’t begin to quite understand. All I can say is Cooper’s portrayal of this feeling was something I saw in his short chirps and expressionless awkward glances that communicated a level of detailed research, coaching, and acting, to say the least of getting to know realveterans that needs to be known and acknowledged.

In reflecting on that profound and sudden sense of humiliation, the only thing I can guess was the cause was a sense that nothing we have done was particularly heroic or deserving of praise. As my last point about Vietnam should have made exhaustively clear, no one deserves condemnation for military service, but I haven’t ever met one who has shown that they need or particularly loved the praise either. The fact is, I don’t know anyone who joined so that people would thank them, and if that was all they received, it wouldn’t be worth it. I think what the sense of embarrassment that veterans feel comes down to is that most haven’t acknowledged the trait that sets them apart from the rest of Americans. They are, or were at one time, willing to endure pain, such as the pain of learning that you actually can keep running even as your leg seizes up in an excruciating cramp while at bootcamp, which all go through. Many also willingly endure a lack of food, comfort, and safety while in country, not to mention the months and years many often spend apart from friends family and the society which they serve. Finally, a few make the ultimate sacrifice in the supreme anti-statement to modern individualism, through death. While many say, and some rightly believe that they would make make these commitments, veterans are those who actually did. They put themselves in that position knowing the risks involved.

It isn’t that the risks were that great that I would die and I have stated often that the United States military is by far one of the safest to have ever been in. The risk of death in the United States military during the most recent decade is less than .1% while the risk of being wounded in action is a sizable amount less than 1%. That’s even if you are part of the only 26% who get deployed to a combat environment at all. It also isn’t like the United States doesn’t reward it’s veterans well for their service. Add on the fact that there is nowhere else in the world an eighteen year old with no skills upon entering can receive such a generous pay and compensation package, to include world class vocational education, housing, and the opportunity to travel the world, there is also free college, healthcare benefits for service connected disabilities, the VA loan and many other benefits I can’t name. The facts are, there are many selfish and rational reasons to join the military.

But there is that risk. There is a risk that is different from the risk of failure that an entrepreneur might take on. You actually could die in this endeavour. Despite the odds, I knew several who did just that. Many people, for whatever the reason, could never bring themselves to take on that risk, be it even for greed or something greater than themselves. I feel that, perhaps, people realize this in themselves, and look to veterans with, perhaps, admiration for it, or at the very least confusion and curiosity about it.

We have an all volunteer service today. That means that people there weren’t forced to join. They weren’t coerced or drafted. Every one of them showed in some little way that they had a part of them that valued something enough to risk their life for it. To the American people today, that means something. I presume they are aware that their lives and prosperity are in many ways contingent of the existence of a warrior class willing to risk pain, discomfort, and death to scare away the forces that would rob Americans of their prosperity. I can’t say that this is a fact, but I think that that selflessness, or whatever it is you want to call it, that the military show is something they are very thankful for. In many ways, I think that many respect such a trait as something of value and rarity. They view it as noble, while the veteran probably has never really thought about it at all.

As I stated in the beginning, I don’t think every veteran is a hero. I think that few are given any real test to prove heroism or cowardice. I went to Iraq twice with the Marines and never faced such a test. The only test they faced was if they were selfless enough to put themselves in that position. It also isn’t that I am saying that the average American is selfish. That would be hypocritical. I love my life today and don’t want to endure pain nor discomfort. I enjoy waking up next to wife with my dog at the foot of the bed and to feel no sense of unsafety in my home. I love that I live in a nation that is prosperous beyond reason. I also know that there are billions of people who don’t get these benefits, but I also know that they are contingent. I know that my comfort and happiness rely on the continued dedication and commitment of a few who have pledged to suffer for a time to ensure it for all of us. To you, I acknowledge your suffering, having been there myself, and am deeply appreciative of everything you do each day.

Thanks for reading. This is a post presented by the Quora blog Jon’s Deep Thoughts. If you would like to support the author, please visit: Support Jon Davis creating Short Stories and Essays in Military, Science Fiction and Life.

2 thoughts on “What is a Veteran and Why are They Considered Heroes?

  1. It’s very true some veterans are not nice. I had to deal with a handful of pricks from the American Legion post next door to my home. Loud parties on the weekends with absolutely no consideration for their neighbors. I made complaints to them, the local police precinct and politicians and received no help. The American Legion was to influential to go up against. Six years of letter writing and one arrest finally sent them on their way to a new location. I was proud of the idea that I fought for the Vietnamese, and felt terrible when this country abandoned them, along with Cambodia. I would have nothing to do with these veterans from this Legion post. I wrote a book about this experience, it’s an e-book and can be found at http://.smashwords.com/books/view/10408. I enjoy your stuff.

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