Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran and author of “A Veteran’s Story,” a series of articles on the experiences of American veterans. In this perspective piece, Mecca reflects on what it means to be a true American hero.
After interviewing more than 300 veterans for my article series “A Veteran’s Story,” I’ve noticed that one belief among our living warriors is continuously voiced and heartfelt: There are no surviving heroes.
To survive combat means exactly that: Living to tell the tale or choosing to remain silent, yet still alive by the grace of God with the opportunity to make that decision. What is a hero? A soldier who risks his own life to rescue a wounded buddy, or the wounded buddy who continues life without legs or arms or eyesight? Is a medal for valor a recognition for bravery or a way of awarding the “lucky ones?”
Highly decorated warriors do not brag; wannabes do. My generation of American warriors returned from Vietnam to chants of “baby killer” and other insults not worthy of print. Yet now we’re referred to as “heroes.” The recognition is appreciated and long overdue, but the generation of warriors from Khe Sanh, the Tet Offensive or the Hanoi Hilton are really not comfortable with being called “heroes.” For us a simple, ‘‘Thank you for your service” will suffice.
During the volatile anti-war movements of the ’60s and early ’70s, many of us coming home from Vietnam were told to not wear our uniforms in public. Such was the mood of the country. ‘Nam vets kept quiet except among ourselves. Today is different, which brings with the recognition a cluster of imposters. Nine out of 10 males claiming to be a Vietnam veteran are lying; such is the lack of dignity of the wannabes. About 2.7 million Americans served “boots on the ground” in ‘Nam, yet only about 800,000 of us are still breathing. The ones who have passed on never heard “Thank you for your service” or had the honor to be recognized as patriotic American soldiers who were willing to serve and do their duty, yet even they would be uncomfortable being identified as a “hero.”
So, what is a hero? What did they do to receive this title? And, where are the real heroes?
You can start with the American Cemetery in Lorraine, France – 10,489 heroes are interred there. Luxembourg, Luxembourg – 5,079. Flanders Field, Belgium – 368. Ardennes, Belgium – 5,329. Rhone, France – 861. Muese-Argonne – 14,236. Cambridge, England – 468. Henri Chapelle, Belgium – 7,992. Normandy, France – 9,387. St. Mihiel, France – 4,153. Florence, Italy – 4,402. Sicily, Italy – 7,861. Cambridge, England – 3,812. Epinal, France – 5,525. Suresnes, France – 1,541. Aisne Marne, France – 2,289. Somme, France – 1,844. Brittany, France – 4,410. Oise-Aisne, France – 6,012. Netherlands, Netherlands – 5,076.
An extinct volcanic crater called The Punchbowl in Honolulu, Hawaii, is the site of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. There is no more space for future interments. The Punchbowl is the final resting place to more than 53,000 “heroes.”
In 1864, the U.S. Government paid $26,810 in a tax sale to acquire the confiscated property of Robert E. Lee. The property became Arlington National Cemetery. Approximately 625 acres are the final resting place for more than 400,000 “heroes.”
Near the Etowah River in North Georgia and in sight of Lake Allatoona with a stunning vista of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the pristine Canton Memorial Cemetery will eventually lay to rest more than 33,000 “heroes.” As of this writing, more than 8,000 have already been interred. The 775 acres were the old stomping grounds of Native American Indians who once roamed the Cherokee County area.
Veterans Day, Nov. 11, is our day, the day we survivors are given recognition as men and women who were willing to give their all in the service of their country. Conversely, Memorial Day, is reserved for the warriors who actually did give their all. They are your authentic heroes. Remember them. Honor them. They have certainly earned it.