Not everyone who put on a uniform and served their country is a hero. In fact, I believe only a very small percentage of those who served – and are serving – are truly heroes, deserving of our admiration, and our sincere thanks. The rest are, well, they’re veterans, and as such, deserve our thanks and respect for volunteering to serve their nation.
But calling everyone who puts on a uniform a hero cheapens the word, and it just plain isn’t true.
Bill McClellan, a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, stirred up a hornet’s nest when he suggested a few days ago that one of the areas in which government spending could be cut would be to stop holding funerals with full military honors for every veteran whose family requests it. In Missouri, they had about 800 such funerals last year, and each one cost about 400 bucks.
Hate mail, death threats, social media campaigns against him; in short, the kind of stuff columnists usually thrive on.
Before you hate me even more, let me point out I’m the son of a highly-decorated World War 2 Combat Infantry veteran, who was Commander of his American Legion post for decades. Dad saw plenty of action on the front lines in the European Theater of Operations in the Big War, and of all his ribbons, awards, and citations, he said “I didn’t do anything that an awful lot of other guys did, too”. And Dad was buried with full military honors, laid to rest by a squadron of riflemen from his American Legion Post (Hammond-Schmidt Post 55). And those guys, veterans of WW2, Korea, and Viet Nam, gave dad his final sendoff and wouldn’t take a penny.
As I gaze up from my desk, on the high shelf above me, are two .30-06 shells: one from the 21-gun salute fired at my dad’s funeral, and one from the salute fired at Toni’s dad’s funeral. They remind me not only of Bill and Mario and my other family members who fired and were fired at by the enemy; they remind me of all my friends who were drafted and went to war in Viet Nam.
One of my boyhood pals, Tommy Armitage, was drafted into the Marines, back in the Viet Nam era when Uncle Sam lined up the draftees and went “one-two-three-you’re a Marine, one-two-three-you’re a Marine”. A few months after Tommy was deployed to Viet Nam, on February 12th of 1969 in Quang Tri Province, he threw himself on a grenade and died saving the lives of four of his fellow Marines.
Tommy was a hero.
But, as McClellan pointed out, not everyone who served is a hero. Plenty of guys spent their hitch sorting mail, making meals, wrenching on equipment, and doing the myriad other tasks that are necessary in the armed services. And plenty of young men freely admit they did their time in the armed services because a juvenile judge said “join the Army or go to jail”.
Is everyone who served in the armed forces a hero? No.
Does everyone who served in the armed forces deserve a funeral with full military honors? Maybe.
But for those who served in actual combat units, our nation owes them a hell of a lot more than a military send-off with a 21-gun salute and a folded flag handed to the family.