It was in 2002 when I first heard it, and even that first time, it made me feel somewhat uncomfortable.
John, Jacob and I had just recently returned to the US from our European adventure, when we attended a wedding of long-time family friends. The groom was in the active military, as were a number of the guests. Ed, the father of the bride, raised his glass and gave a toast; he enthusiastically wished them every happiness.
Then Ed raised his glass a little bit higher and said: “Thank you for your service.”
Huh? I thought. I’d never heard anyone do that before.
Now I’d known Ed for decades – since he was protesting the Vietnam War, as a matter of fact. So it seemed a bit odd to hear him say it, even though it was genuine and it was heartfelt. He meant it.
In those early post-9-11 days, Americans had started to understand that there are folks who make big sacrifices in their lives to serve in the military, that we as a country need a strong military. And that they should be acknowledged and appreciated..
Since that day, though, I’ve heard hundreds of people thank service men and women for their service. My old office was just down the road from a military base, so service people were all over all the time. People would thank them in line at Chipotle, at the bank, at the grocery store. They always looked uncomfortable; they were always polite. It’s also done at baseball games and other sporting events, where the announcer highlights a few members of the armed forces in the audience and then thanks all our service men and women.
I’ve always thought that if I were a member of the military, I would be uncomfortable hearing it. And I’d DIE if someone did that to me at a baseball game. Or if some random stranger just came up to me and thanked me for my service.
Because it often seemed like a hollow gesture. To say “Thank You for Your Service” has become another throwaway phrase – something said to a person in uniform instead of “Have A Nice Day!” With the notable exception of this old friend of mine at his daughter’s wedding, it has never really felt genuine. And it makes me feel uncomfortable.
Maybe it is just because of the people I’ve met who do it. They seem terribly insincere – like Mary Grace – a woman I met at a dinner party who was so sanctimonious about her good deeds and her patriotism, that I was compelled to take her down verbally.
So today when I read an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times entitled
Please Don’t Thank Me for My Service
well, I felt somewhat vindicated in my discomfort.
Matt Richtel told a bit of the story of Hunter Garth, a former Marine, but the focus of the article was on how many present and former military folks feel when someone thanks them for their service.
I did know he was a vet and so I did what seemed natural: I thanked him for his service.
“No problem,” he said.
It wasn’t true. There was a problem. I could see it from the way he looked down. And I could see it on the faces of some of the other vets who work with Mr. Garth when I thanked them too.
Everybody does like to be appreciated, don’t they?
But I read in the article that my instincts were right – that many service people don’t want to be appreciated in this particular way. And to many others, it brings back thoughts that they might not want to think at that particular moment.
The idea of giving thanks while not participating themselves is one of the core vet quibbles, said Mr. Freedman, the Green Beret. The joke has become so prevalent, he said, that servicemen and women sometimes walk up to one another pretending to be “misty-eyed” and mockingly say “Thanks for your service.”
To these vets, thanking soldiers for their service symbolizes the ease of sending a volunteer army to wage war at great distance — physically, spiritually, economically. It raises questions of the meaning of patriotism, shared purpose and, pointedly, what you’re supposed to say to those who put their lives on the line and are uncomfortable about being thanked for it.
Mr. Garth, 26, said that when he gets thanked it can feel self-serving for the thankers, suggesting that he did it for them, and that they somehow understand the sacrifice, night terrors, feelings of loss and bewilderment. Or don’t think about it at all.
I think that we all want to somehow say thanks, because truly, what they do is vital to our country. And it’s dangerous. And pretty thankless. But maybe we need to do just a little bit more than hollow gestures. Just look at the difference between how we treat veterans today and how they were treated after WWII. Then they got jobs and the GI Bill. Now? Not so much.
Naturally, one line in the article jumped out at me, as something that you and I can all do for our vets. To thank them.
So what to say to a vet? Maybe promise to vote next time.