Staff Perspective: The Problem of the “Hero” Label

Staff Perspective: The Problem of the “Hero” Label

A Response to the Article, Hero Worship of the Military Is Getting in the Way of Good Policy

On June 22, 2014, the Washington Post carried the article, Hero Worship of the Military is Getting in the Way of Good Policy, in their opinions section. In this piece, Captain Benjamin Summers argues that calling all Service members heroes - as popular press and policymakers commonly do - devalues the meaning for those who have made sacrifices and those who haven’t.  This soldier, who has twice deployed to Afghanistan, states: “Many veterans deserve high praise for their heroism, but others of us do not…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.” 
He further writes, “…Too much hero-labeling reinforces a false dichotomy that’s commonly heard in our political discourse: You’re either for the troops or you’re against them. We badly need to find ways to bridge the civilian-military gap to cultivate a more nuanced appreciation of service and to produce better policy in Washington.” 

Consistent with Captain Summers’ perspective, I’ve heard other Service members returning from deployment say they don’t feel like heroes. They were just doing their job, they explain. Indeed, this sentiment was expressed last month by Ryan Pitts, a former Active Duty Army Staff Sergeant who became the ninth living recipient of the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan.In contrast to the hostile climate Vietnam veterans faced when they returned home, Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) Veterans have been positively welcomed home by most Americans and thankfully acknowledged by the public for their service and bravery at different events. For example, they frequently are honored at baseball games and other sporting events, in airports, presidential and political addresses, and TV ads.

Captain Summers suggests that when the civilian community puts all Service members on a heroes’ pedestal, a false notion of military service is promulgated, which actually widens the divide between those who serve and those who don’t by painting a black or white picture. You either support our military or you don’t, and if you don’t, you’re regarded as un-American or unpatriotic or unappreciative. According to Captain Summers, this climate stymies constructive debate and dialogue on important policy items like examining the defense budget for unnecessary spending or reviewing the claims process and who should qualify. When the brush is broadly applied and the military is only about heroes and warriors, how can policymakers delve deeper and consider change without public outcry? It’s as if certain topics and policy issues become untouchable.

In a similar way, as a therapist, I have to remind myself to steer away from characterizing clients in heroic terms when they may not feel this way. Generalizations of this type can obscure my genuine understanding of where they are coming from and create a gap between them and me. The same holds true when I engage in policy discussions about our veteran population and how to help them.
As Captain Summers concludes, “It isn’t that the US public shouldn’t honor those who served in combat; it’s that a large civil-military divide prevents policymakers from even asking the right questions. Leaders inside and outside the military need to focus on bridging this gap.”

Please note that this blog represents the personal opinions of Paula Domenici and not those of the Center for Deployment Psychology.

Related Link: 
Hero worship of the military is getting in the way of good policy

Paula Domenici, Ph.D., is a licensed Counseling Psychologist working as the Director of Civilian Training Programs at the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.