Thank you for your service

Elizabeth O'Herrin
The Starbucks Collection

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It’s an awkward thing to be thanked for your military service. It always catches me off guard, and I contemplate the right response before coming up blank and resorting to the default: “my pleasure.” It feels like an empty exchange and sometimes it bothers me, but I shrug it off after a few moments. Sometimes, though, I get sucked into deep contemplation, wondering if that response even makes sense. Some parts were my pleasure. Other parts were not so pleasurable.

Just before I enlisted, I met the chief of the munitions storage area (collectively referred to as the “bomb dump”). He was a man who can best be described as grizzled. He was spitting long streams of brown tobacco and I remember being fascinated by a scar on his right cheek that sunk part of his face. He guided me through a room full of missiles and offhandedly asked, “so, being around explosives don’t bother you?” I looked around. It didn’t really feel real so I said no. It was Madison, Wisconsin and robins were chirping outside. My parents, who were with me because I was only seventeen, exchanged looks of concern.

Bunker busters, laser guided, satellite guided, air to ground, air to air, you name it and I ended up fusing it, inspecting it, and driving it around on a trailer behind me. Slowly bobbing and weaving among fighter jets with thousands of pounds of explosives pointed at the back of my head. You could hit these things with a hammer and they wouldn’t blow up, but that didn’t always make it easier. Heat was the number one hazard and it was 120 degrees in the desert. They call it “cooking off” when one thing explodes and the others follow. Stress was compounded by the fact that I was usually the only girl around, as far as the eye could see. And you can see for miles on a flight line.

“Thank you for your service.”

“My pleasure.”

Being around explosives didn’t bother me until the jets started coming back empty after they had been loaded up full of bombs. The guys on the flight line would cheer and high-five each other. Everyone seemed thrilled but I sat in my truck and wondered what happened out there in the desert, who died and who lived and who got to decide, pondering what it must feel like to have your entire being obliterated from the planet in a single fiery moment.

I am fiercely proud of the work I did over there. I know that my job often saved lives, the good guys. My friends out there. But my job killed people. A lot of people. And in an indirect way, a way that made me feel an intense loss of control. I had no say in anything, I just fused the bomb. After that, it was on its merry way. We often gathered around strike footage when it came in, huddled around dusty computers in plywood lean-tos, where little green glowing men moved about the screen like Frogger. A small box tracked them, voices crackled. Then the screen glowed brightly, and the little green men stopped moving about. Sometimes one got away, and then a stream of bright dots trailed him, like on Oregon Trail when the father goes out to shoot the buffaloes to feed the children. Then the little green man usually stopped moving for good. This was the culmination of my service. Pac Man. Little green glowing men moving about on a computer screen before they disintegrated.

“Thank you for your service.”

“My pleasure.”

Once I Googled “what happens to you in the moments before an explosion” because I wanted to better understand the implications of my actions. I found one website that said in the moments before an explosion, your breath is sucked out of you. A moment of intense pressure follows, where all your innards squish together. An implosion. Then you explode. I don’t even know if that’s true or not, they never taught us that part in training. But since I had no control over who imploded or exploded, I began volunteering my days off in the combat trauma hospital on base.

It was the largest trauma center in Iraq, where virtually everyone who got blown up came to be stabilized before being flown to Germany and then home. Volunteering in the hospital was an effort to get away from the little green glowing men and put a human face on the cost of war. If I was going to help explode people, maybe I should take some small action toward helping put people back together again. This made sense at the time. It certainly worked. I no longer think of the little green men, and instead the images from the hospital are forever seared in my mind.

“Thank you for your service.”

But not all of it was “my pleasure.”

Upon returning home, being thanked for my service became something I found awkward. My experience was not that traumatic. It was not that dangerous. It didn’t truly feel like a sacrifice. Other people certainly deserved a thank you, but not me. Not when I remembered leaning over a guy who had just lost his leg, scrubbing blood from his hands, attempting a conversation to soothe him when he was incoherent, doped up on morphine. Digging through his bag to find his Purple Heart because he became panicked when he couldn’t remember where they put it. I dug through the normal shit he packed in his bag earlier that day, back when he had two legs, like bubble gum.

“Thank you for your service.”

I didn’t deserve much thanks for anything.

Even when other service members or veterans acknowledged my service it felt contrived, something that was said in lieu of a more meaningful conversation. Even worse was when you were out with a group of friends and acquaintances, enjoying dinner or drinks, and someone announces you were in the military and spent time in Iraq. Somebody soon murmured thank you for your service. More often than not it was something they said just before they decided they didn’t have much in common with you and wandered away.

But then something happened that made me appreciate the effort that others had mustered up when they said “thank you for your service.”

I was living in Washington, DC and like everyone else, I was in a rush. I stepped on the metro. It took a moment to register but first I saw a detached, vacant expression on his face, staring ahead. Then I saw his wheelchair. Then I saw his stumps. Fresh bandaged stumps.

And then I saw his mother, sitting just behind him, watching me looking at him. She saw it all register as I put it together in that one…brief…moment. Damn it. She saw me realize he didn’t have legs. My expression didn’t change, I know it didn’t change, but I know she saw me realize it. Our eyes met. I felt like I could see her thoughts in that moment. She had seen a young woman looking at her young son, and she was wondering if a girl would ever see her son for who he was and not his stumps. She was wondering if she’d ever be a grandmother. She was wondering if her son would ever be loved by another woman other than herself.

There’s no way she could have known I was a veteran. That just a short time ago, I had been diving to the ground avoiding incoming mortars. There’s no way she could have known that memories of wiping blood from that amputee’s hands haunted me, because his face was so perfect. And that could have just as easily been her son because his face was perfect, too.

His mother and I, we both smiled that polite, tight lipped non-smile in mutual recognition. I slid into the seat behind her. I wanted to say something, I wanted to say anything. I wanted to give her encouragement. I wanted to say “I understand,” even though truthfully, I couldn’t begin to comprehend. I wanted to say “I feel your pain,” because in that moment I felt entirely full of pain. But I knew I couldn’t say something without sounding vapid and empty, swiping at some semblance of shared experience and missing entirely. Her experience was not my experience, no matter how much I wanted to empathize.

The train jerked forward, and a torrent of frustration and pity and empathy and anger rushed through me.

After Iraq, I’ve continued my work with veterans. I’ve been to Walter Reed a dozen times. I’ve met hundreds of veterans: resilient, strong, some who are struggling with both visible and invisible wounds. Their stories have deeply affected me, and it hasn’t been an easy road. I’ve found myself suffering too. And while working with veterans has always been a challenge, it has never overwhelmed me. But on that day, in the metro, I crumpled in my seat, weeping silently, filled with the frustration of wanting to say something meaningful but fumbling for the words, and ultimately choosing to remain silent.

And so I understand now, all too fully, the discomfort in attempting to awkwardly recognize another person’s great sacrifice in service to this country. When you understand their experience is not your experience. And your experience feels meaningless and insignificant in the face of their sacrifice. And you fail quite miserably in the attempt to verbalize gratitude or compassion.

But now, when I encounter someone who thanks me for my service, someone who couldn’t possibly relate, I understand that maybe they had to work up the guts to come over and say thank you. That they risked an awkward moment. That maybe they didn’t know what else to say, but they wanted me to know they felt something, and chose to say it. And I feel grateful for their words.

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Elizabeth O'Herrin
The Starbucks Collection

@pattillmanfnd Director of Programs & Scholarships. Loves the good Lord, people with interesting life trajectories, Wisconsin & coffee.