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What Makes a Hero?

Carry Me Home

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.

13 thoughts on “What Makes a Hero?

  1. Amen to that, Pam. I was so honored to be invited into their presence Tuesday and be given the chance to say thank you to three heroes. Not even the chocolate cake was sweeter than that privilege.

  2. God bless Jack, our service men and women and their families. I say “amen” to your definition of “hero” also, Pam. But you, too, are a hero . . . and a warrior. Love you.

  3. As always, you’ve nailed the target. No vet I know has ever said “You should know how I feel.” We’ve just wished people would get it . . . that they haven’t been there, they haven’t done that, and they can’t know. But they can understand, if they have someone point it out, that we’re all human and we all do the best we can. You do that. You get it. You show the way. Thanks, Pam.

  4. Every one of us who served could’ve been heroes, but to make a hero you need opportunity. Remember that 9 of 10 members of the military provide non-combat support for those few who go in harms way, This by no means diminishes them or diminishes the role of the men and women on the front lines and it certainly doesn’t deny the heroism of individuals who rise to the occasion when called upon. But we should know the reason why so many heroes are reticent and even embarrassed to acknowledge their heroism is because so often it is an accident of opportunity,

    Vietnam ’71. Door gunner. Like most of the kids I served with, I was just doing what Uncle Sam paid me to do. I think of myself as one of the lucky ones. Opportunity never forced itself upon me.

  5. It was an honor to witness Jack, Leo and Jim get their medals yesterday. Thank you for inviting me to the service. I don’t remember much about the Vietnam war. I don’t remember seeing soldiers coming home from that awful place. I do remember hearing about how they were treated. I swore that no matter what I thought of the US involvement in whatever atrocity we were stopping (or doing) I’d never blame the soldier. Never. They are brave men and women doing what I know I don’t have the guts to do.

    Thank you for your service.

  6. Amen, and Amen. We honor and appreciate them completely. We acknowledge that the level of freedom we enjoy is ours because of what they have always done. May God bless all service men and women in our country and all those still serving away from home.

  7. Pam I am so glad that it was you put up with my Dad long enough to see the greatness that is Jack Jones. Your essays have helped me understand what a true “hero” looks like (no cape needed) and answered the whys that I had about my Pops.

  8. It’s great that they were FINALLY given a proper medal award ceremony! It was long overdue. My dad received his purple heart somewhat unceremoniously in the 40s….they just tossed him the box while he was in the hospital, same as they did to the other guys in there.

  9. Amen sister!!! Been living with a Viet Vet (65-66) for 46 years.. I know all about the moving, the moods, the isolation, the workaholic, totally identify. Quit counting moves at 45… I too have become a traveler because I had to learn to not put down roots too deep. Never happy with anything for long. Been to Chiang Mai never thought about living there!! Lol. We could talk sounds like we have a lot in common. Our roots are here and we call this home I think he may be feeling we are getting to old to move again. We did rent our house and live in our RV. We leave every winter we can!

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