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Thank-you for your service.

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When people find out I was in the military (18 years), the first thing I always hear is “Thank-you for your service.” In fact I actually had an active duty member say that to me the other day (in a smarmy, slightly condescending way).  I don’t know how I feel about this statement.  It kind of embarrasses me in one way, but in another way it irritates me because it seems rather rote, just like one of those statements which people say over and over, and then it loses its meaning.  Kind of like “Have a nice day” – doesn’t really mean much anymore.

I started wondering if maybe it was just me, was I only one that found this statement a little annoying?  I began thinking maybe I’ve turned into one of those super-sensitive people who finds offense in everything.  But then I asked my husband, who also spent many years in the military.  It turns out, he feels about the same way I do.  So then I started thinking, maybe we are two grumpy butts, who are easily irritated, and that led me to Google the statement to see what other Veterans’ thoughts might be on this statement. In the process of doing that, I discovered one of two things: A) There is whole bunch of other grumpy butts out there in cyberspace, or B) This is a common consensus.  Check these articles out – Please Don’t Thank Me For My Service and A case against ‘Thank-you for your service.’

When I hear “Thank-you for your service” I wonder if the person making that statement has any idea what it is they are thanking me for – and I guess that is what irritates me so much about it.  They really have no idea what they are talking about.  Do you realize, when people raise their right hand, and agree to defend their country, they are signing up to possibly die?  How many jobs are there in the United States, where death might be the pink slip?  Being a Policeman or a Fireman or maybe Secret Service are the three that come to my mind.  But for me, I was in more of a support position in the Air Force as a Nurse Practitioner.  I stayed behind and cared for the children of active duty members deployed, so death was really a very small possibility for me.  That may be one of the reasons I found the “Thank-you for your service” a bit embarrassing, because people assume that if you are in the military, you have been on the front line – and I was not.  It takes an amazing amount of support staff to get those members to the front line, and ensure their minds on are the task at hand and not worrying about whether their families are being cared for.

Here’s the thing though.  Military life is not only hard on the active duty member, it is hard on their family members, their children, and their spouses.  As active duty members, they are required to pack up their households and move every two to three years.  This can be really difficult for school-aged children who have developed friendships and are required to move with their families – to start all over again.  It can be really taxing on military families with special needs children who are ensconced in an area where the services they require are available and close by, and then all of sudden the military  is moving them to a smaller base, where services may not be nearby or available at all.

Military families are pulled away from their support systems all the time.  Try being in a foreign country with no family or friends and the active duty member gets deployed or they are away from home a great deal of the time.  I know when I first moved to Japan, I have never, ever felt such loneliness – learning to survive in a new culture, expected to perform in a new job and not having my family just a phone call away.  And that was before email or the internet.  I wrote letters, lots of letters, just to keep sane.  Imagine being a young wife, with very young children plopped down in a land where you don’t speak the language and just paying the utility bill is an all-day process.  It is an incredibly disconcerting, debilitating feeling being so isolated and alone.

When you are in the military, you are first and foremost a soldier, then in my case a Nurse Practitioner, and all the other roles – mother, wife and daughter, take a backseat position.  There used to be a saying when I was in the military – ‘If the military had wanted you to have a family, they would have issued you one’.  When I had my children, both via C-section, I was allowed six weeks off to spend time with my newborn sons and then I was expected to be back at work (in combat boots).  When my oldest became ill with pneumonia at 4 months, and was hospitalized, on oxygen, fighting for his little life, my supervisor at the time would not allow me to stay by his side, she expected me to be downstairs, seeing patients, other people’s sick children, in the Pediatric clinic. I didn’t argue with her because if I had, she might have charged me with insubordination or dereliction of duty.   There are so many occasions where the military came first and my children came second, but that is the military life and I signed up for it.

Being in the military is a 24 hour a day job.  Active duty members can get called in, anytime, day or night.  The military likes to know its service members are readily available and will call at 3:00 in the morning and expect everyone to arrive promptly and in uniform.  I remember a very cold and blustery night in Cheyenne, Wyoming standing at the front door of the babysitter’s house, with my small children in tow, the snow was blowing so hard it was going sideways and I was banging on the door in an attempt to waken the babysitter.  Or how about the active duty Moms who are still breastfeeding their 4 month old infants and get deployed, with a 72 hour notice to wean.  Or the time I had to go to the field, to practice setting up a MASH unit, and I left my husband to try and introduce solids to my 6 month old baby and how terrified my husband looked when I left them.  Or the mother and father, both active duty, set to be deployed at the same time, who are required to ship their young children and infants to the closest family members to live for them for an indeterminate amount of time.  These are some of the things that affect not only the military member but everyone in their periphery.

Granted, there a great number of things about the military that are good.  There is the sense of camaraderie that I will never find anywhere else. There is respect for tradition and rules in the military.  I learned the world doesn’t revolve around me, and I am just a small cog in a really massive machine.  I learned I am not allergic to polyester or plastic shoes (and all those years before the military I thought I was). The military sent to me to graduate school and paid me an officer’s salary while I attended school.  I travelled to Japan and throughout Europe because of the Air Force.  I delivered two babies free of charge (no hospital bills).  I know how to shoot a pistol and a rifle.  I met my husband in Tokyo. I learned to lace-up and tie combat boots even when I was 7 months pregnant.  I discovered it is possible to pee in a cup for a ‘random’ drug screen when I was eight months pregnant.  I learned the real definition of team work and developed a good work ethic because of the military.

In thinking about all of this, the good and the not so good parts of being in the military, brings me back to my initial thought of why the statement “Thank-you for your service” slightly irritates me. I don’t think the teenaged cashier girl at the Lowes check-out counter, the girl with the acrylic nails and the hair extensions has any idea about what my ‘service’ was, or for what reason I served, or how it affects her.  That’s what bugs me.  I don’t think people have any idea of how being in the military affects not only the active duty members but also their spouses, their children, their parents and all the people in their lives.  If people really, truly appreciated what active duty members do every day to protect this country, I would think they would hold the United States of America in the highest regard.  I hope they would treat their fellow Americans with great respect and revel in the freedom afforded them by the men and women of the United States Armed Forces by going out and voting and making sure the people in power are capable of keeping this country strong and vibrant.  I guess that is what I really wish, instead of thanking me for some nebulous service, respect the freedom that comes from our collective service and say nothing.

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