Let’s talk about the word “hero” and intent vs impact.
It’s a word that gets used a lot in reference to our military and our public safety personnel, from police and fire and EMS to hospital workers and everyone else that I haven’t mentioned specifically.
Now, I’m not a Veteran, and I’m not a First Responder of any sort, but I spend a considerable amount of time immersed with people in both communities, and I was a corrections officer for several years, so I feel like I have a pretty damn good idea about what the word “hero” means to people in those communities.
It doesn’t mean what you think it does.
To a lot of them, the word is a burden, and it’s own way harmful.
To a lot of them it’s an unattainable goal to live up to. It’s something that other people are and do.
And for a lot of them, it’s a reminder of the times they lost. A reminder of that person they couldn’t save. A reminder of every single time that they feel liked they failed in the line of duty, whether it was because of a mistake made or simply that it was a “no-win situation” from the get go and found themselves utterly helpless while every fiber of their being screamed at them to DO -SOMETHING-.
It reminds them of everything that they are NOT. For those that it is not harmful to, it is at a minimum awkward and uncomfortable.
The general public likes to use the word “hero” and the phrase “thank you for your service” in an attempt to show recognition and gratitude to those who selflessly run up to and across “The Line” that most people understandably retreat from. The intent is noble, especially when it’s offered genuinely and humbly, and the gesture isn’t unappreciated by those on the receiving end of it. It’s just one of those things that those who are truly doing the job out of selflessness and their love of helping others don’t know what to do with. And as I said, at a minimum it creates an awkwardness and uncomfortable moment for them. And for others it causes harm by triggering painful memories and PTSD.
Sure, there are those in those communities that seem to relish being called a hero or being thanked for their service. Those are often the folks who joined for the wrong reason, and to whom appearance and status mean more than the job they signed up to do. For those people, it was never about serving their country or their communities, but about themselves. But we aren’t talking about those kind of people beyond this.
I’m not trying to say that saying “thank you” to someone who works “On The Line” is a bad thing, and I’m certainly not intending to shame or guilt anyone who says those things. I just wanted to shed a little light on a thing I see pretty often and its impact. And it’s based on my own conversations and experiences with people in those communities, and as someone who has worn a uniform “On The Line”.
If you ask them, a simple thank you is usually more than enough. “Thank you for what you do.” “Thank you for helping us,” is great if you were directly impacted by them doing their job. For most of them, it’s not even needed. But the more broadly and generally that “thank you” is directed, the more of a positive impact it has. Same for “hero”.
Because not a single person in those communities operates or works independently. They are all part of a large team that is inter-connected between multiple agencies and services. Those who “get it”–the people I’m talking about here–know intrinsically that their ability to do their job is absolutely dependent on everyone else that’s part of that team. There are no individual heroes where they are. Their unit, their squad, their station, their department, their hospital, their truck, their partner–all of them are part of a larger whole. And the real heroes never think of themselves as anything less than a member of a team. And they absolutely never think of themselves as heroes. None of them signed up with the intention of getting medals or awards or movies or books about them. They signed up because they wanted to serve a greater good and something bigger than themselves.
Don’t stop saying “thank you”. Don’t stop thinking of them as heroes–they ARE. Just try and understand how your well-intended words might impact some of them in a not-so-great way. And seek ways to thank them or recognize them that don’t put them in an uncomfortable or maybe even painful situation.
One of the best ways to thank the people in those communities is to contribute to their success, such as by going to a fundraiser. Or sending a care package to deployed troops. Or donating blood. Or any number of ways that tangibly help those communities function and do their jobs.
Hell… maybe even sign up for one of those jobs, if you can.