How it feels to be told “Thank you for your service.”
I was in the military for seven years. I deployed to Afghanistan for seven months. People have approached me…more than seven times. In fact, it’s happened more times than I can count (which could be any number higher than 10 with my shoes on). I am either walking down the street or sitting somewhere for lunch and I happen to be in uniform. It happened once outside a courthouse, and a couple times in airports. Then someone sees me or my group and comes over for a handshake, and a passionate “Thank you so much for your service!”
I’m immediately self-conscious. Imagine what this means to be thanked to do your job. Granted, we deploy and it’s risky to fight bad guys, but isn’t life inherently risky? Is what I do really service? Do people thank airline pilots or stunt doubles for their service? What about Moms and Dads who risk their mental and emotional health every day to maintain the fundamental unit of society? I don’t think so.
I’m a young guy getting paid (what I think) is a very good amount of money to do a very specific set of tasks. I try to do them well. I think I’m doing a pretty good job so far, but I’m still getting paid. The point is…I have no idea how to react to such an emotional outpouring of gratitude for this concept of service.
The first time this happened, my immediate response was a handshake back and the comment, “Thanks to you too.” Doh! It was a kneejerk reaction. What the heck am I supposed to say? I don’t identify as any of the modern military buzzwords like warrior or hero. I’m just doing a job like any young kid from the northwest United States, so how are you supposed to react when someone approaches you like you’re Superman? Especially when kids do it. What do you say to that?
Once I volunteered to help stack a parade with uniformed warm bodies. Afterwards, as I stood there trying to remember where I parked my car, a boy probably about six years old walked up to me with a parent in tow. I had my keys out, my eyes squinting under my brimmed cover scanning the parking lot. As he came up, I looked down at him until he was right beneath me. I smiled at him.
“Thank you for your service.” He said in his boyish voice.
Now, I had two options here. You either stand there, put your fists on your hips and say something like “No! Thank YOU, citizen! You are what makes this country great. Never forget that you and kids like you across this great land are our future and remember: eat your vegetables and don’t do drugs!” Then saunter off into the sun, imagining to yourself that the parent isn’t rolling their eyes, and that everyone commends you for your selflessness. Any moment now a flash mob will probably start slow clapping until I’m out of sight. In my 1999 Toyota beater.
I have to admit, the first option is always pretty attractive to me. The second option was that I kneel down with the kid and shake his little hand. He was so trusting for me being a stranger. He didn’t mind at all to come up to me because he saw something bigger than me. Something better than me. Still, I have the dilemma of what to say?
I knelt down, shook his hand, and immediately felt the urge to become a better person. I said, “Thanks, buddy.” His parent smiled and they walked away. I stood up and squinted towards them as they walked off into the sun.
Through the years, I settled on the response “Thank you for your support.” That was a comfortable response for me, but I always wondered if it was the heartfelt response that folks deserved. Some people were very intense in their thanks, and others said it as they passed me. Was it fair to give a rote response for both these scenarios?
Then it dawned on me one day; those comments weren’t about me at all! It wasn’t about my service, or even the service of the millions of others. It was about them! People need to express their gratitude to someone that represents their country (who are conveniently separate from politics). This person that’s dressed like a soldier in front of you represents all the things you love about your motherland, your sovereign sod, your amber waves of grain. Those who felt moved upon had to say something to that bit of America that is before them. That was a huge revelation to me.
I loved it. It no longer ignited a professional or personal conflict any more as I saw each of these instances as a personal expression of patriotism. I observed the flower of national love bloom so often that I became more patriotic. I could communicate my love of country more sincerely to my troops and disbelieve the apathy that the media advertised. People care, and they care a lot. Strangely enough, that perception of glowing patriotism supported me more than the thanks itself.