“Thanks For Your Service”

I was grateful for this New York Times piece. It explores the reasons why some vets are bothered to some degree when someone who clearly has never served in the military comes up and says “Thank you for your service.”

This phrase entered the lexicon sometime in the past ten years. I instinctively liked the idea behind it. But I don’t think I’ve ever said it to a vet or someone in uniform. I don’t know why, precisely. Something about this phrase nagged at me and this article helps me to understand my discomfort a little bit better.

Partly, there’s the simple fact that maybe this person just wants to read their Kindle in peace without being forced to interact with a (well-meaning) stranger. And my social software is not optimized for random interactions with people I don’t know.

Mostly, I think, it’s the over-familiarity of the phrase, and how easy it is for me to say, compared to what this man or woman went through and the world that an active soldier will return to shortly after our paths cross in an airport Starbucks.

“Have a nice day” is such a common phrase at this point that it can be said at absolutely no cost whatsoever to the person who says it. Imagine instead a world — no, better yet, think of one of many existing cultures — where that isn’t a social norm and it isn’t expected or anticipated.

Imagine walking up to someone and instead of saying “have a nice day,” you said this:

“Despite the fact that we’re total strangers, and our sole interaction has been me asking you if this is the right platform for the train back to the city, I want you to know something: I wish for you to experience every possible good fortune today. I wish that for you and for everyone you care about today, because as a thinking, feeling human I know that your happiness is at least partly tied to the happiness of those you love. I wish this for you because I know that you have value, and I want you to hear those words explicitly.”

Well! Now you’ve got some skin in the game. You’re making a true connection with this person. You need to consider these words and sentiments carefully. When you say those words, you’re taking a risk that this person is going to think you’re a nut and walk away, or holler at you, or ask just who exactly you think you are.

“Thank you for your service.” I worry that I’d just be using a catchphrase that I picked up somewhere.

I worry that I’m not entitled to say it. I worry that I’d be saying it without being able to fully and genuinely articulate my appreciation for someone who does, or who has done, a very difficult job of which I feel that I am not capable and which exposes them to immediate and longterm dangers that I literally cannot imagine.

Do I even have any idea how the term “difficult job” is defined within the context of military service?

I say “Thank you for your service,” I receive my acknowledgment, and then I walk away without any understanding whatsoever of the full dimensions of this person, or what true sacrifice of this nature means. This idea bothers me.

I don’t even feel as though I’m doing the right thing by not saying it. I instinctively feel like I should instead use that interaction to try to learn about what their experiences were like, without the filters of politics or media coverage.

Even there, I’m filled with doubt. Why do I feel that I’m entitled to hear this person’s story? Particularly in an airport Starbucks, an environment in which he or she probably wishes I would just leave them alone with their Kindle? And especially considering that although I can listen to their stories, I cannot possibly understand their experiences.

Am I being selfish by even considering using that phrase? Am I hoping that this man or woman will nod and say “Yes, you are very kind for noticing me. Here is your ‘I was nice to a veteran today’ cookie.”

I know that this is going to be one of those blog posts that merely ends instead of concluding. I don’t know what to do and I don’t even know why I don’t know what to do.

I just want to do something. I think that’s what fuels “thank you for your service.” It comes from a sincere desire to express a feeling of gratitude that none of us can adequately articulate.

I have this desire to make these men and women not feel as though we send our volunteers overseas and then consider our country’s military operations are someone else’s problem. I want them to not feel as though the national sentiment is that their mission and their sacrifices are just things that happen “over there somewhere.”

Selfish, again. I want them to feel that way because I know deep down that, in large part, this is how those of us not in the military actually regard those who are currently or formerly in uniform. Brian Williams lying about his experiences in Iraq got America talking about that conflict far more, and with far more (misplaced) passion, than we have in years…despite the fact that operations are ongoing.

I want to badger my elected officials to make sure that current and former members of the armed forces are cared for — whether they’re overseas or within our own borders — and I want to help them by voting.

Though I feel that I don’t understand the huge web of US foreign policy, I want to work to achieve some sort of understanding of the lives of military men and women…those who work overseas and those who work within our own borders. When I think about Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and other regions into which we’ve sent troops, I should be thinking about soldiers.

And I should be thinking about soldiers’ families as well. I didn’t think of them when I wrote my first draft of this: it was a Marine in my Twitter feed who reminded me of this, and I’m shocked by my own idiocy. I want to find the other end of that long tether that stretches back here from overseas. If, as a man without kids, I can’t properly imagine the grinding physical, financial, and emotional struggle of single parenthood, I doubly can’t imagine single parenthood while your spouse is in constant danger thousands of miles away. I want to badger those same politicians and cast those same votes in their support as well.

On a material level? I want to pay for their coffee or their sandwich or their beer or their newspaper. I can’t understand what their lives are like and I can’t understand the shape or the weight of their sacrifices and burdens. But I am capable of buying someone a beer, and then letting them read their Kindles in peace. It’s not nearly enough, but it’s something.