This essay appears in the current edition of Naval Special Warfare’s Ethos magazine. The essay was inspired by discussions I’ve had with colleagues about the challenges SEALs now face, being in the spotlight as the new American heroes and media darlings. This can be pretty heady stuff with some new and unfamiliar challenges for young men who have been trained primarily for intense combat in remote regions. The picture to the left is of Tommy Norris, a SEAL Medal of Honor recipient from the Vietnam war. Ethos magazine is available to the public at http://www.public.navy.mil/nsw/Publications/Issue%2016%20final.pdf
Heroism comes in many flavors, colors, and contexts, as does courage, from which it springs. The ‘heroism’ I address in this short essay is the heroism borne of courage and exceptional performance in combat.
A friend recently shared with me that he had overheard a couple of SEAL combat veterans belittling other military members who had not ‘been there, done that’ in the war, implying that they were somehow not worthy. My friend had the distinct sense that these young SEALS felt that as combat veterans and ‘war heroes,’ they had earned certain ‘entitlements.’ A decorated Vietnam veteran himself, my friend was disturbed by what he heard.
So I began to think about the ‘entitlements’ of heroism. While we can never condone arrogance or ‘hubris’ (excessive pride,) I can understand to a certain degree where these young men were coming from. They came into the Teams with dreams of becoming war heroes, and after enduring a stringent selection process, years of hard training and sacrifice, followed by multiple deployments into god-forsaken places, and conducting operations in which they risked death or significant injury, it is certainly understandable that they believe they have earned certain entitlements. And they have.
They have earned, and fully deserve, the respect, appreciation and admiration of the American people, who owe their American way of life to the willingness of men and women to go into harm’s way to protect it. And they have earned the pay, medical and other veteran’s entitlements that are within the contractual agreement that the American people have made to them through our nations laws. And they have earned the right to be proud of having served and sacrificed for a greater good, for their family, community, and nation.
But their entitlements do not extend beyond that. Arrogance is never justified, nor is a sense of superiority over others who may not have had the desire, courage, or opportunity to go into harm’s way in battle. While the accomplishments of our community may have earned public admiration, we must never demand it. When it does come – as it has in abundance of late – we should accept it with humility and grace.
I’ve found that what real war heroes aspire to most, is not an entitlement, but something that must be earned every day – the respect and admiration of their fellow warriors. We can’t fool our fellow warriors – they smell a phony in a heart-beat – and they give their admiration only grudgingly. Whatever we may have done in the past, fellow warriors want to know what we’re doing today, for our shipmates, our team, our country. Warriors hold each other accountable for continuing to serve, and serve well. “<Wearing my trident> is a privilege I must earn every day.” (SEAL Ethos).
The public, on the other hand, can be easy to impress – at least in the short term. The media eagerly gives celebrity status to anyone who happens to catch the public’s attention, for good or for ill, but today’s media darling is frequently tomorrow’s goat. Like it or not, the media and the public have recently put the spotlinght on us, and want to make Naval Special Warriors into today’s celebrities – war heroes to look up to – and they want to make every guy who has gone through our training a steely-eyed war-hero, epitomizing all that is good in the American male.
This spotlight is uncomfortable, not only for security considerations, but also due to the increased scrutiny and accountability it brings. “We as a community are not used to operating under such a spotlight,” RADM Pybus recently told the Armed Forces Communications Electronics Association- West conference. A few days later, Admiral William McRaven, told the National Defense Industrial Association Special Operations Low Intensity Conflict convention that sometimes “the spotlight on us actually makes us better,” by making us more accountable.
This ‘spotlight’ holds us accountable for what I call ‘the responsibilities of heroism.’ These responsibilities are simple, but they are not easy. Honor, courage, quiet professionalism, humility, and exemplary citizenship – essentially, the ideals outlined in the SEAL Ethos. Once you become a hero, you are always held to account, and expectations are high.
It can be instructive to look at the character of our greatest war heroes. You will rarely meet people more humble than those who have been awarded the Medal of Honor. All with whom I’ve spoken are very humble when explaining why they did what they did, how they survived, how many of their friends they lost. None will claim to be a hero – “I was just doing my job, and somehow was lucky,” they will nearly all say. They know firsthand the ‘responsibilities of heroism,’ for having borne them for so long. Army Sgt Sammy Davis, Medal of Honor recipient, speaking about soldiering and life, told me, ”Heroes are those who do their duty, for their brothers-in-arms and God and country first, and then take care of themselves second.”
Becoming a hero isn’t easy; but neither is living in the spotlight as American heroes. For more than 50 years, we have excelled as warriors; now we must also excel as ‘heroes.’ The respect and admiration that comes with heroism brings with it more responsibilities than entitlements. True heroes understand this.