Don’t Thank Me for my Service Unless You Mean It

As a service member who frequently wears her uniform during my daily public transportation commute to work, I am occasionally approached by strangers who thank me for my service. I smile and respond, “You’re welcome” — but I hate it. I hate the attention. I hate being put in a position to represent all servicemembers. I hate how this acknowledgement only happens when I wear the utility or combat uniform, and never when I wear the service dress, as if the combat uniform points to some sort of danger and the other points to a desk job. Ironically, my specialty is such that all my positions in the Army have been “desk jobs,” even when doing said job in a combat zone under fire.

But what I’ve come to find the most distasteful about these exchanges are the white men who initiate them. For whatever reason, I sense a certain level of sincerity from most women when they thank me for my service, and frequently with older people of any gender, even though I am still somewhat uncomfortable with the attention. Black men rarely thank me for my service; rather, they make tend to make comments about a unit in which they served. Their efforts are relational.

When white, primarily middle-aged men thank me for my service, I detect a vibe of insincerity. That they are not really thanking me; that something else is going on. They are, in a word, a tad too obsequious. The whole situation feels as if they are really saying, “Look at me! I’m acknowledging the service of a WOMAN! See how I practice equality!” Their acknowledgement of my service seems to have very little to do with me and more to do with their own egos; I am just the prop.

Perhaps not so oddly, I have felt the exact same vibe from some soldiers — younger, white, enlisted men — when they salute me, an officer who outranks them. They seem proud of themselves for saluting a woman, as if I should be grateful that they have observed a military courtesy that they do not think my gender is entitled to receive.

For many years, I couldn’t quite place this vibe from white men thanking me for my service until I realized, it wasn’t me — it wasn’t about me. As with most things concerning white men who aren’t as enlightened as they like to think of themselves, they were making what should be a moment of gratitude to someone else all about themselves.