Fifty years ago a master sergeant threw a fist-sized cardboard box at Jack. Inside that container his starred purple heart jumbled and tangled with assorted good conduct ribbons and Vietnam service metals. Yesterday a Colonel representing his local congressman awarded him and two other Vietnam Vets the medals they earned so long ago.
The Colonel told some good jokes, did his best to explain why war is a necessary evil. He talked of communism and terrorism and the horrific slaughter of innocents by brutal enemies. When it was over, three men stood holding their medals pinned to velvet lined backboards, blinking back tears and looking out at a room filled with people who came out on a rainy afternoon to say thank you for your service and to show their respect.
It was a good and proper day.
But watching those men, here’s what I wanted to stand up and say:
These men are heroes not because they stopped the spread of communism, or because they held terrorists accountable, or because our country is the flag-bearer for right and good. These men are heroes because they found themselves in an impossible situation and they did everything they could to keep themselves and their brothers-in-arms alive. They saw and tasted and heard and smelled horrors that no one should ever be asked to experience. They survived to come home to us and have spent fifty years doing their best every day to erase the sights, muzzle the sounds, push down the tastes and walk through the smells burned into every molecule of their souls and brains and bodies.
These men are heroes not just for what they survived in some agent-orange defoliated jungle. They are heroes for living through fifty years of civilians who don’t understand them and loved ones who walk away in tears from actions and responses that, to these men, seem completely normal. Most of us have not been where they’ve lived. We know, deep inside ourselves, that faced with the same God-awful situation, set down in the middle of a bloody mess, we would not have survived.
These men did just that. They came home to us. And for that, I call them hero.