When I was young I read comic books. Superman and the Fantastic Four -- they were my heroes.
In school, I learned about courageous acts performed in the face of injustice by American heroes like Patrick Henry, Susan B. Anthony, and Dr. Martin Luther King. I knew what the word hero meant and how to use it. But recently I have become confused by some common uses of the word "hero".
For many in this country, the term hero is now used to describe any American who has served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Understandably, it's a way to express semantically the feelings of gratitude and admiration that a large portion of the population holds for the few who have endured 10 years of combat.
No doubt these military men and women are all brave, selfless, and commendable people who are dedicated to service. But, lest they perform some heroic feat, I would argue that they likely fall short of being true heroes.
A hero is determined by individual choices and behavior, not by chance or circumstance alone.
Dakota Meyer is a true American hero. Four consecutive trips into the kill zone of an enemy ambush to save the lives of 36 marines and soldiers made then-Corporal Meyer a hero and earned him a Congressional Medal of Honor.
Another Medal of Honor recipient, Michael Monsoor, is a hero. Petty Officer Monsoor threw himself onto a grenade and gave his life to save the lives of his Navy SEAL teammates.
And a small group of passengers aboard United Flight 93, who downed an airplane under the control of terrorists, are American heroes.
When a sniper's bullet hits one soldier and misses the person next to him, that alone does not make the wounded soldier more heroic. When a vehicle is struck by an IED, it's more likely to find heroic feats amongst those who come to the aid of the wounded than among the wounded themselves.
And in August 2004, when my helicopter crashed in Afghanistan and effectively ended my military career, I behaved no more or less heroically than I had over the past 40 combat missions. After hearing my story, many people have felt compelled to label me as a hero simply because I endured a helicopter crash. I politely disagree.
More importantly, most people that I served with in the military will reserve the term "hero" for a select few. It's held for those who have performed truly amazing acts in the face of grave danger -- many of whom have given their lives in doing so.
As a society, when we call all veterans and military service members heroes, we are calling them exceptional. But by making them exceptional -- by setting them aside -- we are segregating them from the rest of the population. We are placing this sub- population farther away from the norm; we are separating them from the rest of us. And with separation comes misunderstanding.
By creating a divide between the civilian community and the military community, it becomes increasingly difficult for veterans to successfully re-integrate into civilian life.
As our veterans return to our communities, we should welcome them with a hearty thank you and a pat on the back, but it might be best to avoid the term "hero." Instead of elevating our veterans as exceptionally different, let's invite them to reconnect with us here at home.
It is civilians who have the most important role to play in veteran reintegration. Our communities should be open and foster understanding. And, to show appreciation and respect for the military, civilians can find ways share in the service and the sacrifice.
Volunteer at a local nonprofit. Give blood. Mentor youth.
Veterans understand the importance of these types of service, and they appreciate civilians who take opportunity to serve and sacrifice here at home.
By casting off the superlatives and taking action, our country can show our military veterans what we really think of them; while at the same time, we can make a difference in our communities. Let's make it clear that veterans are part of our community here at home. Let's stop inadvertently setting them apart, so that we might get to know them after their uniforms come off.