By Peter Sessum
In a recent New York Times (NYT) article veterans weighed in on how they felt about civilians thanking them for their service. I have talked to a number of vets about this and while we all agreed, myself included, that the thanks is not needed, I will say that is no reason to be a dick about it.
Don’t be that guy
The soldiers interviewed are, quite simply, Blue Falcons. They do not speak for all vets and their perspectives in such a major publication might be mistaken for how every vet feel. The last thing that should happen is that civilians think that the remarks of a few represent disrespect from the many. Instead of being polite or admit it is their own hang-up, they turn it back on the civilian and I hope there is no backlash.
“I pulled the trigger,” one vet said. “You didn’t. Don’t take that away from me.”
He for real is pulling the “You don’t know, you weren’t there” on civilians being supportive of our service. Of course civilians know they weren’t there, that is why they are thanking us for our service. They are thanking us for doing what we do so they don’t have to. Our country was attacked and most people got to go on with their life with little interruption. A very small percentage of Americans went to pound sand. Some civilians, especially those that were adults on 9/11 will remember how they felt when the country was attacked and are thankful that there, as Orwell puts it “rough men ready to do violence on their behalf.” They don’t fear ISIS because they know we are here to deal with that threat.
Some don’t like to be thanked
Most vets that I talked to don’t feel right about being thanked. In fact, I don’t trust anyone that is too happy to be thanked for their service like they deserve special treatment. Those are the exception, most don’t want to be thanked and there are a number of reason why. Some associate their service with negative events, like losing a close friend. They do not want to be thanked for that. Some don’t feel like they should be thanked for killing people.
Some vets don’t want to be thanked because they feel that their service doesn’t compare to the service of other vets. The person that never left the wire might not feel that his or her service was the same as the grunts that went on daily patrols. I know a sailor that by luck of the draw was never called up so he spent his entire five years in the states. Some Navy folks never got off a ship. Their service to their country is still honorable but some might feel like they didn’t do their part in the war on terror. That is silly, but you can’t tell people what to feel.
One vet that commented on social media said that he joined to get out of his hometown and to get money for college. Because his reasons are selfish he thinks that he shouldn’t be thanked. I think that means he doesn’t understand what honorable service is. It doesn’t matter if you joined for reasons that are self-serving, you still sacrificed and had to put up with things that most civilians will never understand. Serving your country, even if it is just for the college money, is one of those things that is not easy and should be respected.
I understand his thought process because I had some of the same reasons for joining. I enlisted in the Army in the early ‘90s. I purposefully chose Infantry to test myself. I had reclassed to Psychological Operations and was at the Defense Language Institute learning Thai when the Twin Towers came down. People thanking me for my service was weird since I felt I hadn’t really done anything. By 2003, the biggest sacrifice I had made as going on an NTC rotation. It wasn’t until late 2003 that I headed to Fort Bragg to MOB for Afghanistan.
I feel like my service in Afghanistan was honorable and I believe I did some good. But I knew people that went through a lot more than I did. We lost one solider from the PSYOP Company I was attached to, but as an attachment I didn’t know him. I actually replaced him on the team he was on and saw how his death impacted other people. I know soldiers that did or experienced more so it is weird to be thanked for my service.
I think of it like running a marathon. Running a marathon is hard and some people will be impressed by it. But if you are one of the last to finish you might not think it is all that big of a deal. Someone that ran a 5K tough mudder that is friends with someone that has completed the Ironman won’t think his race is anything to be impressed by.
You never know who is thanking you or why
The article assumes that people thanking a soldier or vet is doing so out of obligation or as an insincere, automatic response. But I think that is quite a leap. I know this because I thank other people for their service. The guy that lost his son might be thanking a vet because he knows the sacrifice that service members make. His intentions are good. The Vietnam vet is not just thanking the vet in front of him, but is able to give the response that he never got. How can you fault him for that? The woman thanking you for your service might be a fellow vet and knows that she doesn’t get that respect so is happy to pass it on to her fellow vets
Or it could be me, I have met four Medal of Honor recipients. You can bet I thanked them for their service. One does not exist in the presence of Leroy Petry and not give him the respect he is due. When I thank someone that is a hero in the military community, it is for the things they have done and how they have inspired us. When I thank a vet that is not famous it is because I thank them as a brother in arms, warrior to fellow warrior. We all say we deploy for the person on our left and our right and I appreciate anyone that has served that under different circumstances could have been that person on my left or right. And I don’t care if you ever deployed into harm’s way. If you stood watch on the wall, I respect your service.
What to say
I freely admit I feel uncomfortable when someone thanks me for my service and part of that is I didn’t know how to respond. “You’re welcome” didn’t feel right. “It was my honor” felt too formal. It took me a while to think of “Thank you for your support.” That has been the best response I could come up with. To me, it feels like I am returning the appreciation. I do appreciate the support that people have form the military because when I was in college I know that many people do not feel like they need to express any form of support for the military. In fact, there are times on campus when vets were targeted for negative attention.
One of the people in the article was a former Special Forces soldier. I am sure that walking around Fayetteville wearing a shirt with his SF group or ODA on it he gets a lot of attention. But try being in a classroom in this decade and being called a babykiller and then tell me how much you hate the military support.
Personally, I don’t like brownies with walnuts in it. But if you make a batch special just for me I am going to thank you with a smile. Not because it is my favorite but because I appreciate the gesture. I don’t want to be unappreciative of the effort. If we make civilians think that we don’t want their appreciation then they will stop giving it. Yes, that will mean that it will easier to get through the airport wearing an Army hat, but it also might mean that politicians are going to stop caring and the last thing we need is less legislative support.
I will say this. One vet gives a very detailed account of something that happened on his deployment. He tells a story that most civilians can’t relate to and then wants to tell them to not respond? Kind of a douche move if you ask me. He is the guy that shows up at Applebee’s on Veterans Day with a unit hat and Army sweatshirt and then acts like being thanked is an imposition.
So thanks for nothing Blue Falcons quoted in the NYT article, you aren’t doing anyone any favors. Thank you for your support for those civilians out there that freely and sincerely give it and to my fellow vets and anyone still serving, thank you for your service.
Yes, perfectly said.
I thank you for your service to the nation.
Awesome job Mr. Sessum. I try to change before I leave work everyday so I am not placed in the awkward moment where I’m thanked but you know when I am caught I emphasize on thank you for the support. It should in the very least be for the support of our Brothers that faught in Vietnam and were spat on and called babykillers that we take the praise and keep walking.
P.S. It’s funny to me how people that say they hate the attention also where unit T-shirts from deployments and “grunt style” t shirts, and have bumper stickers all over their cars proudly displaying all ribbons and badge producing schools etc. If you don’t like the attention stop getting a high and tight and wearing tan boots with jeans in public……