I see that a cable commentator stirred up a storm by saying he wasn't sure that every veteran should be called a "hero." I agree with commentators on Tom Ricks' blog who argue that we have devalued the label by overuse.
The men and women who have volunteered for military duty -- especially since we got into nonstop conflict after the 9/11 attacks -- deserve our praise and support. They are brave, dedicated, and patriotic -- but not necessarily "heroes." The same is true of the many other Americans who risk their lives for the rest of us -- police and firefighters, diplomats in dangerous posts, and the private sector workers in very risky jobs like miners, fishermen, utility workers, and so forth.
The best model is the military itself. The armed forces regularly make distinctions among types of valor. The highest award, of course, is the Medal of Honor. It is awarded for:
"Conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above
and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against any
enemy of the United States; while engaged in military operations
involving conflict with an opposing foreign force; or while serving with
friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an
opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent
Next in prestige are the service Cross medals, awarded for: "Extraordinary heroism not justifying the award of a Medal of Honor;
The act or acts of heroism must have been so notable and have involved
risk of life so extraordinary as to set the individual apart from his or
her comrades." Below them are the Distinguished Service Medals that do not necessarily involve combat but are for: "any person who, while serving in any capacity with the United
States Army, has distinguished himself or herself by exceptionally
meritorious service to the Government in a duty of great responsibility.
The performance must be such as to merit recognition for service which
is clearly exceptional. Exceptional performance of normal duty will not
alone justify an award of this decoration." [I quote from the Army language; each service is about the same.]
The third highest combat decoration is the Silver Star, awarded
for "Gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States." Then there is the Bronze Star, for
“Heroic or meritorious achievement or service.”
It does not demean the winner of a Silver Star that he or she did not win the Medal of Honor.
All recipients deserve to be called "heroes," but it is useful to remember there are distinctions. What becomes questionable is whether everyone else also deserves the label. Well, the military has additional medals for being wounded in combat and for service in a war zone and a still different one for service during a period of conflict. I'm for praising their service, bravery, and patriotism, and rewarding them with generous pay and benefits, but not for routinely calling every one a "hero."