As a reporter who has covered the military for many years, I have met some real heroes. No, it’s not every person who has ever put on a uniform, as civilians and rookie reporters like to think. I’m talking about heroes like Pearl Harbor veteran and Medal of Honor recipient Chief Petty Officer John Finn.
To write that someone is a hero requires placing the word, the person and the deed in context.
I suppose the Little League ballplayer who hit a home run is a hero to his mom and dad, or when a passerby helps an injured motorist, or someone saves a drowning kid in a pool. These are heroic acts — not necessarily are they heroes.
But we in the media have drained the word of its meaning when we call everyone a hero, specifically those who wear a military uniform. Our misuse of the word influences our communities so they too diminish the word’s meaning.
“Hero returns from Iraq”
“WWII heroes return to humble lives”
“Homecoming set for heroes”
These are some of the headlines editors are writing today. But they haven’t thought it through.
If the regular G.I. coming home is a “hero,” what then is written when a Medal of Honor, Navy Cross or a Silver Star recipient comes through town? What do you write of the “hero” when he is abusive to his family? What about the “heroes” in prison?
Most service members don’t consider themselves heroes. They keep telling us that, but reporters and editors don’t listen. Perhaps it’s because so few of them have any military experience we don’t know when a real hero stands before us. The soldier usually says it’s the ones who didn’t come back. The Medal of Honor recipient says it was the other guys in his unit that deserve the medal.
“That damned hero stuff is a bunch crap, I guess,” Finn said.
Fortunately, Don Gomez, an Iraq War veteran who served two tours with the 82nd Airborne Division, and spokesman for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America eloquently provides us with a guide post in his New York Times piece.
Reporters have an obligation to be precise with their words so the reader has a better understanding of what is going on in their world. Editors and headline writers have the same obligation. We need to use the word “hero” sparingly so it regains its true meaning — especially when we are at war.
We owe it to the readers and to those who served.