Sunday, March 23, 2014

Thank you for your service

A misunderstanding at Texas Roadhouse led to my being named a “Local Hero.”

The restaurant manager, Joel, presented himself at table side as we were tying into a couple of Roadhouse steaks, medium rare. He seemed early – usually the manager waits until you’re sopping up the last of your gravy before he drops by to ask the enthusiastic and leading question, “Was everything delicious tonight?”

“Are you former military?” Joel asked. My first thought was that my carry might be showing. “Excuse me?” I said, rearranging my sweatshirt.

“Your hat. I noticed your hat and thought you might be former military.” He pointed to my ball cap, olive drab with a large blue/gold Indiana state flag patch. He said he thought I might be Indiana National Guard.

“Military, yes. But Marine Corps,” I said. “Tonight I’m just showing some Hoosier pride.”

We exchanged pleasantries and he turned to go, leaving the words, “Thank you for your service.” When the check came, I found he had given me their “Local Hero” discount. I had no idea that was a thing. It knocked 10% off the tab. Thanks, Joel.

I appreciated the sentiment behind his thanks. I’m glad people want to recognize the men and women who’ve chosen to serve in defense of this country. But we overuse the word.  Members of winning football teams are all heroes. Bono is a hero. Angelina Jolie is a hero. Suddenly every person who’s ever worn camouflage is a hero.

No. No. No. And no.

A hero is one who does something extraordinary, noble, and selfless – usually in the act of saving the lives of others while disregarding the risk of losing one’s own.

  • Captain Chesley Sullenberger guided his disabled Airbus A320 to a successful ditching in the Hudson River, saving all 155 passengers and crew on board. That is a hero.
  • Staff Sergeant Sal Guinta and his unit fought through a Taliban ambush. “There were more bullets in the air than stars in the sky. A wall of bullets….” When Guinta saw the Taliban dragging Sgt Josh Brennan off into the night, he ran after them, into the dark, to get his buddy back. That’s a hero. (Sal Guinta talks about it:  08:08 to about 09:50 here.
  • A firefighter plunges into a burning house to save a terrified kid hiding in a closet. There’s a hero.

Any one of these people presented with the label “hero” tends to reject it. Every one of them says things like, “I’m no hero. I was just doing my job. I was doing what anyone else would do in my shoes.” (Sal Guinta on "my brush stroke": 12:12 to about 12:50 here.) 

So I appreciate where your heart is, and a couple bucks off a rib eye is nice. But please. “Hero”? Don’t do it.  Painting everything you admire with the word “hero,” passing out hero-badges like trophies at a pee-wee soccer match, it cheapens and diminishes the heroic ethos.  Stop.  Don’t do it.


The other question is about how and why we say, “Thank you for your service.” Since 2001, it’s become a common gesture, one that many of us vets deeply appreciate. My daughter’s school had its Veteran’s Day ceremony each year. Dads, uncles, and grandpas would rise from folding chairs on the gym floor, an admiring son, daughter, niece, nephew, or grandchild attending, and receive the applause of a grateful student body.  We’re thanked for our service, and we appreciate it.

At Conner Prairie’s Fourth of July celebration, the symphony plays a medley of service hymns. To “Anchors Aweigh,” old sailors stand to be recognized. The music turns to the “Marines’ Hymn” and the words “From the halls of Montezuma…” run through the minds of Marines as they rise to their feet and receive a salute and a handshake from Revolutionary War reenactors. We’re thanked for our service, and we appreciate it.

But there’s another side of “service” that is more painful for some vets to carry, more difficult to acknowledge in a gym full of fifth graders or among families lounging on the meadow at Conner Prairie.

I had a chance to spend an hour recently with novelist Tim O’Brien, whose fiction is informed by his experiences as a combat infantryman in Vietnam. He’s been in the midst of that chaos and darkness.  He’s seen the ugliness and brutality of war. Tim O’Brien knows what it is to see a friend die.  He knows the feeling of personal responsibility for the deaths of other people. He talked of his difficulty accepting those well-meaning wishes of “Thank you for your service.”

“Thank you for your service?” he said, his voice rising.  “If you knew the things I’d done, you probably wouldn’t be thanking me.”

When I receive those same wishes, I might respond with, “Thank you; it was an honor to have served.” Tim O’Brien needed a different way to respond.  How to be gracious, but not to accept praise for what is dark, chaotic, destructive, and laden with feelings of guilt? He landed on a simple response that satisfied, for him, both needs. 

He says simply: “No thanks are necessary.”


Anonymous said...

+1 for repping INGO. :)

Joe said...

And this short piece ties some of these things together: People wanting to express appreciation, the rejection of the "hero label," a recognition of pain. In a redemptive way.

Joe said...

Video: Thank you for your service.