Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

John Samuel Tieman: Thank you for your service

At the gym the other day, a few of us old veterans were talking among ourselves. The subject drifted to how tired we are of that “Thank you for your service” thing. One guy said we should stop wearing veteran’s caps and t-shirts and such. But we wear those geeky veterans’ caps to meet other veterans, or to elicit real conversations that begin with stuff like, “Oh, I had a brother in the Air Cav at An Khe …”. And, well, OK, to show off. But if all we get is a “Thank you for your service”, it’s so awkward it’s not worth it.

            Mind you, not all veterans feel negatively about the thanks. Many feel affirmed. But most have profoundly mixed feelings. I did a completely unscientific internet survey of veterans. I asked, simply, how they felt when folks thanked them. Over 600 vets responded. About a third said the “Thank you for your service” was nice. And about two-thirds ran the range from mixed feelings to the negative to, in a few cases, the outright contemptuous. Generally mixed feelings to mildly negative. The word “awkward” came up a lot.

            It’s hard to be completely negative when folks say something nice. I don’t doubt the surface intention of the “Thank you”. My biggest complaint is that, like all cliches, it lacks reflection. It’s not really about dialogue. You can tell that because it’s so awkward so often. 

            Human interaction is not singularly about me, nor is it just about you. It’s about what is between us. In the we-ness of this exchange, what tension is in the person, the one doing the thanking, that he or she feels will be discharged by this interaction? In other words, what is it about my “Vietnam Veteran” cap that elicits this interaction? My guess is that the “Thank you” is a psychological defense against a variety of unwanted feelings. 

            All I can really say is how I feel, and what other veterans tell me they feel. And what we feel is that the interaction is stilted, cliched. The results are predictable. The veteran is often relatively unresponsive. What’s the veteran supposed to say? “You’re welcome.” “You should write a thank you to my draft board.” Or “Well, thank you for dodging the draft — it made it so much easier for me to serve.” 

            I often wonder what would happen if I got all effusively grateful? “Oh, your thanks means so much to me. The last ‘Thank you for your service’I got was from a whore in Nha Trang. What do you say we get a beer, and I’ll tell you about this grunt I knew who collected ears. You want to hear what it’s like to not have a bath for six months?”

            Some years ago, I was in an airport. A soldier sat across from me. His mother and father had just left in tears. He was on his way to Iraq. As he sits there awaiting his imminent departure, he just stares at this hands. This older guy comes up to the soldier and begins the whole “Thank you for your service.” The kid never looks up from his hands.

            Instead of “Thank you for your service”, perhaps folks should say, “I’m so sorry we did this to you.”

            Many veterans are tired of purely symbolic gestures. There is no patriotism without sacrifice. Duty without cost and effort, there is no such thing. You want to thank a veteran? Go to a town hall meeting. Volunteer. Vote. Read a newspaper. Study history. Study Spanish. Don’t get me wrong. Fly the flag – I do. Symbolism is important. But don’t think gestures are all there is to patriotism and duty.

            By the way, the last thing I would have wanted when I got home was a thank you parade. I’d been in plenty of parades. In 1970, I would have regarded it as an irritation. Another thing — no one ever disrespected me for my service. With the exception of the community college, I went to upper class universities. My experience was more one of isolation, meaning I was the only Vietnam veteran I knew.

            Oh, and a couple of other things. I got my thanks. I got the G. I. Bill. From that, I got a house, an education and a career. I also got V. A. medical care, meaning, if I ever need it, state medical care is free for the rest of my life. You’re welcome.

—-

Copyright 2018 John Samuel Tieman

6 comments on “John Samuel Tieman: Thank you for your service

  1. Bob Bertram
    November 13, 2019

    When a vet returns there are things he/she can say to help those around them understand the conflict the vet experienced. That dialog is spread among the public in many unrecorded ways. The Vietnam vet was censored even shunned, the public for the most part, never got to digest what had happen. This silence widened the rift between those who served and those who didn’t. I grew up with uncles and aunts who served during WWII. I watched and re-watched hours of WWII and Korean war movies and documentaries. From the 60’s to 2001 the Vietnam dialog was often exploitive rather than communicative. So in reflection, maybe the “thanks” that makes many of us uncomfortable was the first step taken to break down the silence between us and the public. -Another way to put this is, the public has a need for closure too.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Greg Dillahunty
    November 12, 2019

    I remember a in Los Angeles airport walking through the terminal in dress greens, a lady passing in the opposite direction said to me while looking at me as she passed “baby killer!”.
    Weird because it did not really bother me like you might think. I was more than aware that some people in those days had different political and personal views even as young as I was.
    Later in life I realized she was being disrespectful to me and to everyone who was serving in the military because it sure was not about me since she did not know me personally.
    Compared to disrespect for the military I will take “thank you for your service” as a way of saying “I respect those who serve and sacrifice for us by serving in the armed forces “. I believe that’s what people are trying to communicate even if it is awkward.
    Better than ” baby killer” for sure.
    Heck sometimes I think someone needs to say something in acknowledgment to the military families too. Who really shows respect to a military family as a whole for their seperation and sacrifice living separately from the service member of the family who maybe deployed?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Neil Newcomb
    November 12, 2019

    Yup. There it is, brother. Sometimes I feel like a duffle bag of ambivalence about the whole veteran thing…I’m still leery…don’t wear my “colors” or my cap every day, as some do. That 60s scorn of my contemporary countrymen still stings. But I’m pushing 73 and I don’t have enough time left for retribution.
    But I have noticed something different in the past fifteen or so years: when I do identify myself as a Vietnam Vet, there are people that seem to almost turn and run away…their face and mannerisms display a distinct discomfort at the prospect of proximity. It is hard to describe and I’ve watched it happen to other guys. I get sense that they can’t deal with the fact that we’re a bunch of old guys who’ve finally attained some standing and respect.
    But maybe it’s just me.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. allisonfine
    November 11, 2019

    This is so excellent and I can really totally understand you here. I am not one who thanks veterans because I have been aware of the ambiguity of the entire enterprise since I was 18 in 1967. The world is always at war and our country is sending young men and now women to fight to things they did not create and cannot solve. The cost is enormous. I cannot thank a Veteran but I can express my fervent wish that the human species evolves past this. Thanks for this essay however because it is so clear and honest.

    Liked by 1 person

    • James Sain
      November 12, 2019

      Sorry that “Thank you for your service” affects you in a negative way. I personally appreciate the gesture, I was a Navy Corpsman with the Marines and saw a lot of blood shed and death , plus when I came back to US in Calif., I was greeted by protesters, calling names , throwing trash and calling us baby killers . I left the military, but later rejoined and retired. I feel a strong Brother hood towards military personnel and all that our military does to protect our freedom and I hope the civilians will continue to Thank us for our service. You should go on an Honor Flight to appreciate the kindness shown towards War Veterans.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Philip F. Clark
    November 11, 2019

    John, thank you so much for this wonderful essay in tribute to all who serve us.

    Liked by 1 person

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