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 often so awkward.
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.