No “Thank You”?

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.

59 Comments

Filed under Adult Traumas, Campaigning, Conspicuous consumption, Disgustology, Elections, Huh?, Humor, Taking Care of Each Other

59 responses to “No “Thank You”?

  1. Because I don’t know how they feel & my voice is pretty little, I use the gesture now – 2 fingers over your heart & then draw them out till your hand is fully extended – it doesn’t require them to participate. Mostly they just nod which is just fine by me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Perhaps because of where I live, I do not come in contact with men and women in uniform on a daily basis, so I seldom have opportunity to thank someone randomly. But when I have been engaged one-on-one with someone serving in the military I have thanked them for their service.

    For example, at a party recently, I was talking with a young man who is in the Coast Guard. He is truly out there on the front lines fighting the drug cartels. Before I left, I shook his hand and told him “thanks for everything you’re doing out there…and be careful”. He told me that he appreciated me saying that. So I think when you really feel it, it is a good thing to say. But sometimes just saying words reflects more upon the person saying them than the person receiving them.

    The other day on a talk radio show, a caller’s first words were something like “I was in the Army back in the 60’s…” whereupon the host immediately cut him off to interject “thank you for your service”. At this point in the conversation, for all the host knew, this guy could have served his military time in Leavenworth. So the point now is not really about appreciating the caller’s military service, but about the host’s patriotism.

    Anyway Elyse, this is a thought provoking blog. I enjoyed it and from the looks of the comments, a lot of other people did as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I am one of those who doesn’t thank. I just don’t see the people in the military as those who deserve our gratitude singularly more than, say, police officers, firefighters, doctors, teachers, scientists, airline pilots, and so on. The fact that military service in Afghanistan and Iraq (and Vietnam before that) has little to do with actually defending the country doesn’t help either, although I do realize that it’s not up to the soldiers where they go to war, so I think veterans do deserve help and support after they are done with the military.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Totally agree with you, Elyse. Have felt this way from the very beginning. I think our vets should be afforded all the honor and support that we can muster which means working overtime to make sure they get the best medical, psychological, and financial support available via governmental agencies and Vet-specific charities. Encouraging our corporations to do job training and hiring of our Vets when they get out are just a few things we can throw ourselves into. There are so many more ideas. Let’s say thank you with our service back to them.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It is unfortunate Elyse, because when I say thank you, I mean it. No, I don’t know what it’s like to make those same sacrifices, but I do know how grateful I am that these countrymen and women of mine have made them. I am also PO’d at the less than stellar treatment they receive from our government. Yet my initial reaction when I am put in a social situation with a soldier is to want to thank they for their service. And I clap at ball games when they are announced, too, not feeling that this is hollow.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What do you think about people buying dinner for a service person and his/her family, stuff like that?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m glad there are people who will defend my life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. I just wish that was the purpose we use them for.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you Elyse. I think sometimes we don’t think. Vote, yes that is the best way to thank them.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I go back to the old Buddhist saying, if you have nothing to add to the silence, don’t. Many of us should remember this…

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Dana

    Would it be better to just give a smile and friendly nod?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I’ve read enough veteran blogs discuss this to understand finally where they’re coming from. It just seems all too easy for us to say in a rote fashion. I’ve stopped saying it.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Dan

    I’m really conflicted on this one, Elyse. I live within 15 miles of a the most famously known Army base in the nation. I have worked on commercials for the Army and training videos for USAREC and been involved with soldiers while doing it. On our local news we periodically see coming home footage of this base and the next nearest one in our state. I see the strain of sacrifice, and have experienced it when a son was in the Air Force in Saudi Arabia. For me, it is not a hollow gesture when I see and thank them when they are out and about in our community though I do understand the point made here of doing more.

    My father was an officer and artillery forward observer in the Korean “conflict.” He often felt his service was slighted because there was no memorial commemorating those who served and died there unlike WW II.

    While working on a departing video for a Marine Corp commandant years ago at MCB Quantico, I visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (http://thewall-usa.com/index.asp). I have no family on the wall but found the name of a fellow high school student there that was only someone I knew, not a friend. I saw his name along with those of over 58,000 other service persons. I saw all the mementos left daily at the base by family, friends and others. I wept.

    I have never been in the service. During the first part of the Vietnam war I was in college and had a student deferment. After leaving college, my number came up in the draft and I failed the physical. They asked how long I had had a heart murmurer. News to me! I later tried to enlist and failed over vision. It seemed a case of women and children first and then me. I was now a 4F and not even suitable for desk work (?).

    My best friend and the godfather of my youngest son was a veteran of the Vietnam war. I told him of my experience at The Wall and how I felt guilt over not having served there. He told me not to and that if his being there meant another did not have to go, that was fine with him.

    Indeed, you and I, the others commenting here, and that serviceman can agree to disagree. If I did not express my gratitude to them, and their families by proxy, I would feel I was dishonoring them. I feel the same way about the National Guard when they give service at sites of natural disasters or social unrest. They too put themselves in discomfort and harms way to varying degrees.

    I agree we could all do more that would show our appreciation on a more personal level and perhaps more meaningful way than what may appear to be “kissing babies”. I dare say though, that if no one said “Thank you.” and we only looked upon risk of life and limb and personal loss to their families for our liberties as just “part of the job” and not a sacrifice we would soon loose the dedication of those we deserve our honor, especially now that they serve by their own volition. I know on my job, as a self-employed technician, I appreciate someone recognizing my dedication to delivering with excellence. It saddens me to think there are those in the service that may make mockery of my sincerity but it won’t stop me.

    I would like them all to know I am someone across the miles who appreciates what they and their families endure in our stead.

    Liked by 1 person

    • What a beautiful song. And what a thoughtful comment, Dan. I’m not quite sure how to answer it adequately. In fact, I’m not sure I can.

      My sense is though, that your interaction is not a hollow gesture, which is what these soldiers were talking about. Towards the end of the article, Garth talks about how he DOES appreciate thank yous from folks who get to know him a bit. That’s different. Then it becomes more than slapping a yellow ribbon on the back of the SUV — a lot more.

      I live in the DC area and I have visited the Vietnam Memorial many times (including on the night before the Iraq War started). It is a moving experience. But I am horrified at how we as a nation have failed the folks we sent over there who came back.

      We need to do more. That was really what I was trying to say in this post. We need to take care of the folks who risk/risked their lives for us.

      Like

    • I forgot to mention that the Korean War Memorial, directly across the Mall from the Vietnam Memorial, is quite moving as well. (The WWII Memorial I truly hate as it doesn’t convey what the war meant — you get no sense of the magnitude of it, nor the evil that was fought. It breaks my heart as my dad was a WWII vet.)

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  13. I hadn’t thought about how this can be difficult for some vets to hear. Thanks for the food for thought. Do you think that most vets feel this way? How can we know? In the same way, how can we know the motivation of the person saying it?

    We bloggers are comfortable with words, but I doubt the vast majority of people are. They don’t come easy for many, especially words about emotional subjects or to express complex thoughts. That doesn’t mean their feelings aren’t genuine.

    I would assume that for most, the motivation to say “thank you” is simple: that ARE truly thankful. Maybe trite phrases are all they have to express real emotion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dan

      @pegoleg- Glad that your comment is below mine addressing another aspect of this issue. Obviously, I too am comfortable with words. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      • And you have quite a way with those words, Dan. Feel free to drop a few more my way any old time.

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        • Dan

          Just not like the last 4,000+ word post I wrote on my blog, huh? 🙂 I can get a bit verbose. Thanks for the compliment though, Elyse. I do take my writing very seriously and find much joy and fulfillment in it. Like Art does, but usually from a more sombre perspective. I miss not having the time to banter with him like we used to. (I am not so serious that I won’t dangle the occasional participle though.)

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    • That’s very true, Peg, that we are more comfortable with words than others. Still, I don’t know what to say. My old (beloved, great view-d) office was near an army base, and every time I went out I saw people saying “thanks” and soldiers looking genuinely uncomfortable. Do all feel that way? I don’t know — I never did see one who seemed to appreciate the gesture.

      I think we all are thankful for what they do. But our society and our systems has a terrible, ungrateful attitude towards the folks who came back that saying “thanks” just doesn’t erase. We need to give folks jobs/job training. Healthcare — mental health counseling.

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  14. I often think the phrase sounds as if it is bringing attention to the person offering it more than the intended recipient. Surely we can be more creative with our appreciation. Thanks for writing about this.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Overused & too casual are some of my thoughts as well. I can’t recall the post (probably an OITS) when I made a statement that a retired military reader supported it. Out of due respect, I won’t try to synthesize, but it would be appropriate here.

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    • I imagine that there are folks on both sides of the fence on this one, Frank. The folks in the article made a distinction between it being a throwaway line and someone who gets to know them. That makes all the difference, I bet.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. This awkwardness was really captured out in a scene in American Sniper, when the “thanks” was coming from another vet. It was a strange scene, but necessary.
    My feeling is that actions speak louder than words. If you really want to thank a vet, demand that your representatives stop using them as pawns in a bigger game and give them the help they deserve when they come home.
    You would think this would be a no brainer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You WOULD think so, wouldn’t you. But you’d be wrong because we don’t. That’s kind of what I was trying to (but obviously failed to) get across. We need more than gestures. These folks need help!

      Liked by 1 person

  17. What is most interesting about this to me is the idea of having a ‘fallback” sentiment to rely on in a situation that makes someone uncomfortable. It’s not unlike what you say to someone when they experience a death. It is something that forces us to confront our own fears or feelings–we imagine ourselves in that situation, if only for a micro-second, and more often than not it makes us uncomfortable–for a myriad of reasons–so we produce a handy sanitized sentiment that is non-offensive. On the other hand, if we said what we really felt (I can’t imagine what it is like to daily be faced with the choice of kill or be killed, for instance), that probably wouldn’t go down so well either. To err on the side of sanitized and polite? It’s an interesting conflict!

    Liked by 1 person

    • What a good point. “Sorry you experienced/saw” … yeah, that wouldn’t be an easy thing to say. Then again, if you listen to folks, and DO hear what they went through, then saying “thank you” or “sorry” has meaning.

      Like

  18. Is it an overreaction to how Vets were treated in the past? Do people thank them in order to feel good about themselves?

    I take that back. It’s cynical. People should be, and are, grateful. It’s good that they express it. If it creates an uncomfortable moment, so be it. Far better than the moments it created years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We can disagree and be buddies. It certainly is better that the way people treatedVietnam vets.

      Click on the article. The soldiers quoted said it much better than I could.

      But we could really do them better by not going into stupid conflicts.

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      • Amen on the latter. I don’t want my daughters going into the military for fear that they’ll be sent off to some stupid war by a pencil pusher in Washington who didn’t do two minutes of service. Same as it ever was.

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        • It didn’t used to be Military service was a right of passage with the draft. Now we get sent into combat by a bunch of chicken hawks — and they are coming back out of the woodwork with talk of Jeb. God help us all.

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  19. Yes, all the way through your excellent post. We are very good with lip service with the veterans and active members.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Very interesting to read this. I never thought about that phrase being something they might not like to hear. I suppose it comes down to the same thing as most everything else: actions speak louder than words. Voting, as you point out, is one way we can thank them. And once, after my family had finished our meal in a restaurant and were headed outside, my husband said, “You guys go ahead.” We walked to the car and waited for him. When he joined us I asked him what he was doing. He said he’d seen a soldier–probably on leave–eating with his family, and so he went up to the counter and told the hostess he wanted to pay for the family’s meal. My husband did this without the family knowing who it was, and had I not asked him what he’d gone back in to do, he might not have told me either. My husband already ranks high in my eyes, but he ranked even higher that night. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  21. Thanking a soldier for their service always felt just one step above someone putting a bumper sticker on their car declaring their support. I agree with you: demonstrate your support by actually getting off your butt and voting, do the hard stuff like volunteering at a vet center, ask questions of those in authority, write to your representative to encourage funding. There is so much to do yet few of us are willing to do anything except mouth platitudes.

    Liked by 2 people

  22. I have always felt uncomfortable with this custom, but have never been able to artitulate why, much less convince others. This states it perfectly. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. As a vet, I’ve written about this subject before. I came out of an Army that was near the end of the cold war – much different from the military today. I feel embarrassed when people thank me. I thank today’s vets by paying attention to the fact that we’re still engaged abroad and the very real issues vets who return home from these war zones are facing. And voting for politicians who I hope will take a little more time before dropping our military in untenable situations.

    Liked by 2 people

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