The current flap over Pakistani immigrant Khizr Khan’s appearance at the Democratic convention prompted me to write about something that’s been bugging me for a long time. There seems to be a belief that anyone who serves in the military is a hero, particularly those who’ve died, and some seem to think that family members of military members and of those who died while in military service are somehow deserving, although deserving of what I’m not sure.
In the summer of 1963 my dad signed a document granting permission for me to enlist in the United States Air Force. He – or my mother – had to sign it because my birthday is late in the year and I was still seventeen when I graduated from high school a few weeks before. Air Force regulations required that although seventeen-year olds could enlist, they had to have parental permission. My dad had been in the Army Air Corps during World War II – his brother had also and had remained in service for twenty years – and he had mixed emotions about my plans to join the Air Force. He would have preferred that I stay home and farm, or perhaps go to college. I had been accepted at several colleges but didn’t know where the money was going to come from. I would also be subject to the draft once I turned eighteen and as a single teenager, would have been prime meat. So, daddy signed. (I heard later that my maternal grandmother accused him of “signing Sam’s life away.” No one ever told me until after she was dead.) A few months later I turned 18 but by that time I was already in the Air Force and in the final weeks of training to become a jet aircraft mechanic.
When my dad signed the papers for me to join the Air Force, the United States was not at war, at least not officially. Yes, we had military personnel in some Asian country called Vietnam few Americans were even aware of it. I wasn’t expecting to go to war myself and certainly wasn’t expecting to see combat, although I wouldn’t have minded. As it turned out, I spent 12 years in the Air Force with a good chunk of it in Vietnam where I saw war up close and personal. However, it was MY service and my family didn’t have a damn thing to do with it. I collected quite a few medals and decorations during those 12 years but just because I’m a decorated combat veteran doesn’t make me a hero. Had I died, it would have been my death, not theirs, and while they would have grieved over me, they were deserving of a no particular status other than that of a family that had lost a son. It wouldn’t have mattered if I’d died wrapping my car around a tree, I’d have been dead just the same as if I’d been shot down on a mission over North Vietnam. Maybe my mother would have joined Gold Star Mothers but somehow I doubt it since she never joined the DAR even though she had ancestors who fought in the American Revolution. No member of my family has ever joined the DAR, the DOC, SAR or SOC. I’m a member of three veterans organizations, one which I had a role in founding, another I was coerced into joining and the DAV, which I joined because I’m a disabled veteran and I thought they’d be of help dealing with the VA (I was wrong, they’re not.)
In recent years – mainly since Reagan – an idea has developed that anyone who’s ever served in the military is some kind of hero. People like to greet veterans with “thank your for your service” or, if a veteran “welcome home.” Now, I don’t care for such bullshit. I do sometimes wear caps, one that says “C-130 Hercules Vietnam” and one with an emblem of the Distinguished Flying Cross on it but I don’t wear them to get recognition. I only wear them in hopes of attracting the attention of a fellow C-130 veteran so I can tell them about the organization I helped found. I don’t want anyone to thank me for my service because I didn’t do it for them and I don’t need to be welcomed home. I don’t want anyone to think me a hero because I’m not, even if I did fly some 1,500 combat sorties. My dad flew 30 missions over Germany and Occupied Europe during World War II and he didn’t think of himself as any kind of hero. He put his DFC and Air Medal lapel pins in the lapel of his suit but he hardly ever wore a suit. The fact is that just being in the military -and even being in combat – doesn’t make a person a hero, not even if they die while in service. To be a hero, a person has to do something heroic.
The modern perception of military service seems to be shaped largely on the service of the men who served during the period from World War II to Vietnam when military service was to a large extent compulsory, as it was in World War I and the Civil War. Young men were forced to serve in the military against their will, and their service was seen as sacrificial, particularly by politicians eager to get their vote after they returned to civilian life. But military service hasn’t been compulsory in the United States since early 1973 when the Department of Defense announced that there was no longer a need to draft men for military service. (The end of the draft came as the United States withdrew the last military personnel from South Vietnam.) Since that time, all men and women who have served or are serving in the military are there of their own free will. They are making no sacrifice as their fathers and grandfathers did who were drafted into interrupting their lives for a period of military service. They are compensated with a pay check, a pay check that is substantial for men and women in the modern military and often in excess of what they would likely be making in civilian life. This is true even of the lowest ranking enlisted men and women. Those who elect to stay in the military for a 20-year career draw 50% of their base pay; those who stay longer draw a higher percentage all the way up to 75%, which can amount to a considerable sum for senior officers and enlisted men and women.
Contrary to popular belief by those who’ve never served, military service isn’t particularly hard. New recruits must complete a period of basic training which consists primarily of physical conditioning and military training in regulations and such disciplinary skills as learning to march in formation and small arms training. Upon completion of basic training, a new recruit is sent on to additional training that may involve additional military training if they’re assigned to the infantry but may be classroom and practical training to learn a particular technical skill. Such courses consist of as little as a few weeks from some skills to as much as two years for skills such as nuclear reactor operators. Some new officers are sent to special courses such as military pilot training or submarine officer training. Once a young man or woman has completed their training, they are assigned to an operational unit, which may be a combat unit but could also be support. If they are assigned to a combat unit, they can expect to spend their time in continued training since combat units aren’t engaged unless they are actually in a combat zone. Military training in itself can be dangerous and hundreds of young men and women die each year in accidents, both while on duty and in vehicle accidents when off duty. In fact, accidental military deaths have exceeded deaths from hostile actions in many years since the beginning of the so-called “War on Terror” after the 9/11 attacks. This was true in the years 2002 and 2003 and has been true since 2008. In fact, in the years from 1980 to 1989, accidental deaths in the military exceeded 1,000 a year; the most hostile deaths in a year since 2002 is 847 in 2007. My point is that a military member is more likely to die due to accident than from hostile action. Military Deaths by Year, which brings me to my next point.
Just because a person serves in the military – or dies while on active duty – does not make them heroic. There have been men who truly were heroic in the military, starting with Sgt. Alvin C. York in World War I and continuing through such men as Lt. Audie Murphy, Major Edwin Dyess and Colonel Paul I. “Pappy” Gunn, but such men usually became heroes because of desperation. York decided to take matters in his own hands when he saw his buddies being mowed down by German machine guns, Murphy defended his men against a German attack, Dyess carried out attacks on Japanese ships in Subic Bay in one of the few remaining Air Corps fighters left in the Philippines and Gunn waged an essentially one-man war against the Japanese to free his family from captivity in Manila. Since then, military heroes tend to have been men who performed “selfless” acts such as jumping on hand grenades, acts that might be more correctly identified as thoughtless since they happened so quickly the individual didn’t have time to consider the ramifications of his actions.
In truth, much of what is hailed as heroism is merely a military member doing the job they were trained to do, whatever it may be. Some medals – the Bronze Star in particular – are often awarded as commendations for routine performance of one’s administrative duties. In fact, the Bronze Star was originally authorized as a counterpart to the Air Medal, which was authorized in 1942 to recognize the role of airmen flying combat missions – often against great odds – at a time when ground forces had yet to enter combat. A colonel felt that infantrymen, in particular, should be awarded some kind of decoration to recognize that they had been in combat. No particular act of valor was required for award of the medal – any soldier who had qualified for the combat infantryman’s badge was eligible – and the award was also approved for administrative actions, such as maintaining files in an orderly room. The Bronze Star It and the Air Medal were equal in prestige – until 1985 when military politics led to the elevation of the Purple Heart from a low-level award to prominence above the Meritorious Service Medal and dropped the Air Medal to the lowest precedence of any combat award and below the level of the MSM, which is only awarded for non-combat service. (By doing so, the DOD robbed hundreds of Army Air Corps and pre-1985 USAF airmen of the recognition they so richly deserved for their meritorious service in aerial flight.)
Military medals are a story in themselves. Prior to the Civil War, there were no medals and even then, the Confederacy did not recognize its heroes with medals. The Medal of Honor was authorized during the war and was often awarded for such mediocre actions as reenlisting. (Hundreds of Medals of Honor were taken away when the criteria for the medal was changed in the early Twentieth Century.) The Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Star were authorized just before World War I and the Purple Heart was authorized in 1932 for presentation primarily to men who had been wounded. The Distinguished Flying Cross was authorized in 1926; it was awarded to civilians such as the Wright Brothers and Amelia Earhart. The Air Medal and Bronze Star came along during World War II, along with the Legion of Merit, which is essentially an award for high-ranking officers. Since Vietnam, a veritable library of new awards have been authorized, to the point that it seems that the modern military man and woman gets medals just for showing up for chow! In short, most military medals today are meaningless.
This brings us to “gold star families,” a term little heard of before a Pakistani immigrant named Khizer Khan made a speech at the Democratic Convention. To begin with, there is no such thing as a “gold star family.” It’s a term that the Army has on its web site to refer to families of military members who lost their lives on active duty. However, there’s no official organization or recognition of such families even though the military was authorized to present lapel buttons to family members – parents, spouses, children, step-children, brother and sisters – of those who die while on active duty starting in 1947. The lapel button carries no significance and no benefits to those to whom it is presented except recognition. It’s something for family members to have to remember their family member, the same as the flags used to drape coffins and which are then presented to the family, usually to either the wife or mother of the deceased. The design is different for those who died in a combat theater, regardless of the cause of death. There is no organization and they have no official standing.
There is, however, a formal organization for Gold Star Mothers, women whose son or daughter has died while on active military service. Gold Star Mothers was formally organized in 1928 when the mother of a US Army Air Services pilot who died during the war decided to start an organization for mothers of men who had died while in military service. They got their name from the gold-starred flags family members displayed in their windows during the recent war – families with men in uniform displayed a flag with a blue star and those whose sons were lost displayed gold stars. The blue and gold starred flags became prominent during World War II but they died out after the Korean War. They were not popular during the Vietnam War – in fact, they were hardly ever mentioned. They were resurrected in the 1990s and began attracting some attention from the media – and politicians. In September, 2012 Barrack Obama proclaimed the last day of September as “Gold Star Mothers and Families Day.” However, the memo must have got lost because no one seems to know anything about it.
Families of men and women who die while on active duty have recognition, but not status or standing, as members of the media proclaimed that Khizer Khan and his wife have. The Khans claimed they have made some kind of sacrifice because their son died in Iraq. In fact, they have made no sacrifice at all and whether their son’s death was a sacrifice is debatable. Captain Khan’s commander, Maj. General Dana Pittardi, (Gen. Pittard was Bill Clinton’s military aide 1996-1999), wrote a piece for the Washington Post but was very vague as to how the officer died. He says only that he was killed by a suicide bomber and that he “may” have been trying to prevent the death or injury of innocent Iraqis. The captain was awarded a Purple Heart, which is awarded to all military personnel who die as a result of enemy action, and a Bronze Star, which is basically a glorified commendation medal. If his actions had been seen as “heroic,” he would have been awarded at least a Silver Star and possibly a Distinguished Service Cross. In the Khan’s minds, their son died a hero but in reality he was the victim of a bomb. Regardless, their son’s death reflects solely on him, not on them.
Military valor reflects solely on the individual, not corporately on their family, regardless of how close. My actions while in the military reflect solely on me and if I’d died, while my family would have suffered loss, they would have made no sacrifice. Neither would I if my son’s submarine had gone to the bottom of the China Sea while they were playing cat and mouse with the Chinese navy. Several of my ancestors served in the Revolutionary War but I have never been a member of the Sons of the Revolution and no one in my family has ever joined the DAR (except my great-aunt.) At least two of my ancestors were Confederate soldiers but I’ve never joined the Sons of Confederate Veterans – and never will. My valor is my own and no one else’s. Similarly, while I’m proud of my father for flying 30 missions in B-24s over Europe, his service is no reflection on me, nor was it a reflection on his parents, brothers and sisters.
What I’m saying is that military service and any recognition for it only applies to the one who serves, not their mother, father, spouse, brother, sister, children, grandchildren or anyone else.