Veterans and POWs never asked to be labeled heroes—or anything


The recent tempest over whether former prisoners of wars deserve to be called heroes neglects two important constituencies: POWs and veterans.

The fact is, they never asked for the label.

In writing 100 Questions and Answers About Veterans: A Guide for Civilians, we found that many veterans are uncomfortable with labels. They should no more be labeled than any other population group of 20 million people.

In his foreword to the guide, U.S. Army veteran J.R. Martinez wrote, “Some people have called me a hero for being in the military. Others have called me a monster for being in the military. I wish people would take the time to listen to me. Maybe eventually they’d just call me J.R.”

There are a number of other labels that chafe when applied to this large group of men and women. Many  have to do with the stereotype that veterans are  damaged individuals or victims. This label does not fit, either.

In the guide, published by the Michigan State University School of Journalism, we try to encourage civilians to have conversations with veterans. We do this by answering some of the basic questions people have about veterans. We hope that, with this as background knowledge, people will be less afraid of hurting the people they talk with or being embarrassed.

The guide says, “Labels such as ‘hero’ and ‘warrior’ frequently are used to describe a veteran’s service. Veterans themselves are not often looking for these labels, nor do they feel labels accurately portray their service. Some veterans served in support roles that did not require heroism. Other veterans who might have done remarkable things say their actions were just part of the job or their only choice. As members of a unit that went into combat together, some are uncomfortable with being singled out for acclaim. Others have regrets about things they did not or could not do.”

Conversations can take us far.

Rather than debate whether veterans deserve the hero label—or any label at all—politicians and journalists would serve us all better by listening to them and letting them speak for themselves. Portray them as the individuals they are and don’t engage in a self-serving argument about how to portray them in a word or dimension that they did not ask for. There is more to them than that.


At Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, Joe Grimm heads up the “Bias Busters” program that publishes a wide range of books dispelling myths and combatting bigotry against minority groups.

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