Does “Thank you for your service” apply to all veterans?
My wife and I were attending a community band concert with our teenage nieces. It happened to be the 75th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1944. Of the few hundred people in attendance was a 95-year-old veteran who landed at Omaha Beach. They announced his presence and the crowd gave him a raucous, well-deserved standing ovation.
The concert was filled with patriotic anthems including a medley of theme songs from each branch of the Armed Forces. Veterans in the crowd were requested to stand while their song was playing. Minutes later the United States Air Force song, Off We Go Into The Wild Blue Yonder, filled the air.
I am a veteran of the Air Force but I did not stand. Others stood as the songs continued. I noticed monuments in the park for the fallen heroes of each American conflict. We were sitting directly in front of a retired cannon from a battle long ago. My wife and nieces urged me to stand, but I could not. When the concert was over, they questioned why I remained seated.
I explained that I had not earned the right to stand in the company of men who stormed beaches and liberated the world. Men who saw death and destruction on an unimaginable scale while fighting for the freedoms we take for granted. There were Korean, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Afghanistan, and Iraq War veteran’s standing. I’m a “Thank you for your service” veteran, and we’re not the same.
I joined the Air Force when I was 22 years old after failing out of college and becoming a lazy, directionless drain on society. The Air Force changed me. It gave me the confidence and skills to succeed in the world. I became an Air Traffic Controller, worked seven hours a day, Monday through Friday, and lived off the 2nd hole of the base golf course. After 3 1/2 years, I had what I needed from the military and then got out. I do not belong in the ranks of war or retired veterans.
He was seated next to me on a flight from Chicago to Atlanta. Impeccably dressed in his white Navy uniform, the sailor was headed home for the first time after completing basic training and firefighter school at Naval Station Great Lakes. He was young, 20 years old, and after home leave was headed to Japan to board the supercarrier USS Ronald Reagan.
He seemed like a good kid, and after speaking with him for a couple of minutes, he told me that he was scared. Not scared because this was the second time he had ever flown and disliked flying tremendously. Also, not scared because he was moving to a foreign country in two weeks to be aboard a ship that may soon take him to the Persian Gulf. He was scared because he was about to propose marriage to his girlfriend the next day.
I asked if he had the ring. He pulled the little black velvet box that we all know so well from his pocket. A little pep talk seemed to be in order, so I went through his plans with him. I found out what he was most scared about was asking her father. He further explained, her parents did not want her to marry a sailor. They did not appreciate that their future son-in-law was serving his country. Before leaving for basic training, her father conveyed his hope that his daughter would move-on because she deserved a better life than that of a military spouse. A solid “No thank you for your service.”
When we landed, the flight attendant welcomed us to Atlanta, mentioning that there were members of the military on the flight and thanking them for their service. A couple of people clapped but most went about their business. He was unfamiliar with the massive Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and asked if he could tag along until we reached baggage claim.
Along the walk and short train ride from Terminal B were a handful of “Thank you for your service” moments. Most were out of politeness with no real intent to engage the sailor. He would respond with “Thank you, ma’am” but the phrase made him cringe. In his words, “I haven’t done anything to deserve thanks.”
Up walked an older gentleman wearing a Vietnam Vets hat. A genuine “Thank you for your service” interaction was about to take place. The old grisly vet asked, “Where ya headed son?” After the two spoke for a minute, the vet implored, “Stay safe and make us proud.” The Sailor puffed his chest and stood at attention with a firm “Yes Sir!” His first moment of truly being appreciated on his journey.
Moments later, as we ascended the escalator, his entire family greeted him with cheers and applause. Mom was in tears, and his father beamed with pride only he could have for the sight of his son in uniform. Noticeably absent was the future fiancee and her parents.
I’m writing this story on the Fourth of July. The big parade is about to begin, and the streets are lined with people in their American flag outfits. As always, there will be politicians wearing their flag pins riding in the back of a convertible doing that hand wave. There will also be veterans marching down Main St all over this country to shouts of “Thank you for your service.” Today is the day we are all patriotic.
Tonight will be the same fireworks and celebration as every year on this day. Also, the same are the signs dotted around neighborhoods that read, “Veteran suffering PTSD lives here. Please be respectful with your fireworks.” No doubt, at 1 am, one of those drunken, patriotic Americans who yelled “Thank you for your service!” hours earlier will be shooting off firecrackers to the terror of that same veteran.
Soon it will be over, and the patriotism will wane. But, the politician will keep wearing that flag pin and thanking veterans for their service at every possible opportunity. They love using the military and our veterans as a public relations tool. They cast votes to spend nearly a trillion dollars on the defense budget while making cuts to Veterans Affairs. The hearings on veterans issues are poorly attended, and active military pay raises are meager to non-existent. Another version of “No thank you for your service.”
The Point of This Exercise
Let’s think of the reason we say, “Thank you for your service.” It’s rare to hear a veteran thank another. There’s no need to thank them. They did their duty as an American, and that’s the difference. Most civilians speak the words out of guilt. The guilt of not doing their duty. Having no attention span for endless war. These wars never hit home or affected their lives. When they see that Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine, “thank you” eases that guilt unconsciously.
Our veterans are suffering and committing suicide at alarming rates. A high percentage of our enlisted soldiers come from broken homes and middle to low-income families. Joining the military is their way out. Often they have had a stressful upbringing that leads to psychological issues that get exacerbated by the trauma of war. When they come home, we acknowledge them with “Thank you for your service” and little else.
That’s why “Thank you for your service” rings hollow. Of the multitude ways you can help, start by engaging instead of thanking. Sometimes listening is the help they need. Most war veterans don’t like to talk about their experience. My grandfather never spoke a word about World War II to me or others that I’m aware. The best action might be to treat them with the respect they earned. “Thank you for your service” is akin to saying “hello” to a passerby.
Weeks ago, I watched a video of the funeral of a man who served with me at Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi. He was a retired Master Sergeant and was buried with full military honors. During the ceremony, Taps was played and the flag was presented to his widow with these words.
“On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Air Force, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”