Today is Veteran’s Day in the US where the country is encouraged to recognize the members of its armed forces. I have become aware that members of the general public, when they encounter service members in public, will often tell them “Thank you for your service”.
It would never have occurred to me to say such a thing to a veteran. These are people who were willing to risk their lives, to be shot at and injured, sometimes grievously, to suffer PTSD and other traumas that last long after the event and often in the cause of futile or even wrong conflicts waged by politicians who have other agendas than defending the nation, surely requires gratitude on the part of the rest of us. But it is precisely for that reason that telling a stranger who happens to be a veteran “Thank you for your service” seems so glib and shallow.
It appears that some veterans seem to feel a similar sense of discomfort at being thanked in this way. Here is Chris Martin.
I fought in Afghanistan. When people learn of my military service, I get a variety of comments — none more common than “Thank you for your service.” My response sometimes surprises people. I look them in the eye and say, “You’re welcome.”
Many civilians may genuinely wish to have played a larger role in America’s recent conflicts — if only from the home front. In lieu of participation, they offer thanks. Society has normalized this practice, with the result that some Americans consider uttering thanks to be a fulfillment of their patriotic duties.
This helps explain the surprise many people show when I say “You’re welcome.” All I mean is that I am proud to have fought for my country. But often the thank you means more to the person offering it than to the person being thanked.
When I sat on a panel in front of 75 Tillman Military Scholars — some of our best and brightest post-9/11 veterans — in July, I asked the audience who felt uncomfortable when thanked for their service. Almost every hand went up.
This Veterans Day, on behalf of my fellow Afghanistan and Iraq veterans, I say to the country: There’s no need to thank us. You’re welcome for our service. But take a minute to talk with us. Ask us where we served, learn about what we did in the military and find out what’s next in our lives.
I know people who are veterans. I know that for many, having been in a war is a painful memory that they would just as soon forget if they could. So I leave it up to them to bring it up if they wish to and am happy to talk about their experiences with them. But if they don’t, I don’t either.