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I'm A Vet, But Not A Hero
By Jack Mallory
Got into a discussion with a Trumpster on a high school reunion web site. She's someone who thinks she can ignore the results of war as long as she calls every vet a hero—while refusing to condemn Trump's attacks on the loyalty of those who have served, like Lt. Col Vindman and Ambassador Taylor.
I posted this on the site, in a probably hopeless attempt to introduce a little reality into her life.
Heroism and war. No representative data, no good evidence, just anecdote. The vets I know don't think of themselves as heroes. They know there are heroes, may have seen a few, but would never describe themselves that way. For many, I suspect, being referred to as a hero gives them the heebie-jeebies, as it does me. I don't go to many vet ceremonial events, because of the proliferation of hero verbiage on the part of civilians.
Heroism, the way I think of it, is a relatively small part of war for those who fight one. The everyday realities of war are more mundane: the shits from the weekly malaria pill; a missed mail call because the log bird took ground fire, or a Dear John letter when there is mail; getting stuck with the ham and lima beans in your C rats; crotch rot.
Today, Deb heard a good example of the everyday, potentially lifetime realities of the war experience. Interviewing a prospective employee who would be working very closely with vets, requiring patience and sensitivity, she asked him what are the things that "set him off." That is, what are things that can cause him to "lose it." He's a vet with two combat tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. Deb's got 20 plus years as a VA therapist, knows that many/most of us have triggers: long-lasting reactions to situations that remind us of war. Sudden, loud noises; discomfort in crowds or contained spaces; people close behind us.
The vet's trigger was one I hadn't heard before, somehow specific to his wars. Without any hesitation, without having to think about it, he said, "People with their hands in their pockets."
I haven't talked to him, don't know where this comes from. Being around people of uncertain identity, in wars without uniforms where the threat isn't easily defined? Whatever the origin, it's his trigger. Next time you're out, look for people with hands in their pockets. How many do you think you'll see? Think about spending your life with that as a serious anxiety prompt, trying not to treat every pocketed person as a potential threat, feeling like you're nuts looking at people's pockets.
This kind of thing can be a serious obstacle to a normal life, like the other long-lasting combat adaptations I mentioned. Hurling yourself to the floor in the Principal's office when a plastic water bottle a student has loaded with dry ice explodes outside the window can give a rather odd impression during a job interview.
Or, with some work, maybe a lot of work, these reactions can just be the lifetime leftovers of war that we adjust our lives to. Luck helps, also. The first time Deb and I went out, the VA therapist in her said as we went into the movie theater, " You don't want to sit in the middle, do you?" We sat by the aisle, near the exit, and I thought maybe she was a keeper.
Heroism gets more attention because it sells movies and drives recruitment for the next war. But for many of us, decades after the fact, it's not parades, not medals, not "thank your for your service" that remain, but these lingering, quirky differences between us and the rest of the world.
Jack Mallory is a long-time VVAW member. He served in Vietnam 69-70 and joined VVAW in 1970.