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.

45 replies »

  1. A very tough and demanding job indeed! Your description of the night in Wyoming says a lot. A huge commitment for the whole family. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I’m a grumpy butt too. I hear people say “Thank you for your service.” and I think of all of those times when people in the communities near the base treated us like crap because we wore a uniform. all they wanted to do was to separate us from our wallets and then kick us out the door when there was no more money left to be taken.

    • I have had that happen. Or you get blamed for everything that’s wrong with the US just because you wear a uniform – or when we used to go places in uniform and people would stare at us like we were from some Satanic cult – that was years ago.

      • I liked waiting in line at a grocery store and then the cashier would ask me for all this extra information to be on my check. it went sorta like …

        “Wait a minute, you didn’t ask the last person for all of this information. you just took her check. you didn’t ask her where she worked or for her Social Security number.”

        “It’s our policy.”

        “What if I don’t it to you?”

        “Then you have to pay in cash.”

        “What if I won’t give it to you?”

        “Then you have to leave.”

        “Fine. You put all of these groceries away. CYA!”

      • Oh because of the out of state driver’s license. I had completely forgotten about that! Ha – you made them put back the groceries!!! See that’s messed up that they should treat you that way!!!! Now I remember – when I had an out of state bank on my checks – all the rigmarole they would make me go through – of course that was before debit cards.

      • I do. But of course it wasn’t anything like what happened to the guys in Vietnam when they came back – my husband flew helicopters back then (he was super young), and he said he was accused of being a baby killer and a roto-warrior(or something like that) when he got back. But now that you mention it – I am starting to remember – guess I pushed all of that back into the recesses of my mind.

  3. For the longest time, I would get choked up at the “Thank you for your service” comments. More often than not, they come from an older generation, some of them sporting Vietnam Vet hats. How these men (and sometimes women) who put their selves in the ultimate sacrificial position and were thanking ME, was beyond any sort of comprehension. Nowadays, regardless if it’s a Vietnam Vet or the checker at Home Depot sporting the neon nail polish, if I get a “thank you for your service”, instead of getting teary-eyed, I respond with sincere and heartfelt “thank you and thank you for your support”. The general public may never know the depths of sacrifice that a service member faces, but if they are going to take the time to thank me for my service, then I am going to take my time to thank them for their support.

    • That’s very true, and I do appreciate the fact they have taken time to thank me, but I always get a little embarrassed. Sometimes however it is so rote and insincere, I’d rather they just say nothing. Maybe I should just accept the expression at face value – and leave it at that.

      • I look at the comments like “how are you doing today?”. Do they really want to hear that I slept horribly and the three-year fought with me this morning and would not wear anything BESIDES a dirty Lightning McQueen shirt and the washer finally shit the bed and the eight-year old reminded me the DAY of that he had a “career day” to dress for or that I’m out of my mind lately about my oldest moving out and going to college? Probably not. But I am one of those people who will strike up a conversation with strangers, and “how are you today?” and “thank you for your service” are great icebreakers for that. I understand what you’re saying though – the insincerity does make it difficult to approach. That’s where a nice firm returned handshake and a locking of eyes while returning the thanks comes in handy. If they are truly insincere in thier comment, I guarantee they won’t be next time they say it to someone else! 😉

      • Oh my gosh, I am having flashbacks to when my boys were little, and the late night – oh by the way (we need homemade cookies for class in the morning if we want extra credit) – of course now it’s can you edit my 10 page paper on the benefits of anabolic steroids before 11:59, and this is at 11:23 – and they forgot to use any capitals or punctuation. I guess the whole thing that got me going on this – is the fighter pilot dressed in his flight suit, who looked down his nose at me and said “Thank-you for your service”. Like it was an insult, like he was saying I really didn’t do anything, because I wasn’t a pilot and I couldn’t be half as important as him, and my fat butt probably sat behind a desk for 18 years and I was so insignificant – that was the impression I got. That interaction has bothered me for months (I tend to ruminate on stuff).

      • Lol! …edit my 10 page paper on the benefits of anabolic steroids…. I seriously LOLed on that one. Honestly, I have worked with enough fighter (and heavy aircraft) pilots to learn this – most of them are self-centered, egotistical and think that they are the next best thing to sliced bread. I think they have to think that way to strap their selves into the seat each day, trusting everyone from the engineers to the crew chiefs to the specialists, hoping they did what they were supposed to do to get their asses back on the ground and home to their families each day/night. I think that air of arrogance is what keeps them trusting at a distance and perhaps not totally freaked out every time they fly. & notice I said MOST. I have met some really cool, laid-back flight crew, that were extremlely personable and easy to get along with. Ignore how this particular pilot acted towards you. Each service member plays an intricate part. Not all jobs are going to be glamorous or in-your-face seen. Without your role, however, that system would fail.

      • Exactly – such wise words. That’s I guess what I was getting at, the military as a whole does not function if even one small unit is not doing their job properly.

  4. I like to tell any service member I see “thank you for all that you do”. I’m sure it still sounds a little trite, but I think any member of serivce and their families should be treated with respect. I could have only guessed what they went through, but reading what you had to do and what your family went through, makes me appreciate it all a little more. Even though it makes you grumpy, Thank you. And your husband and your family. <3

    • See I like it when people who understand say it – it makes me smile!!! I guess I am a grumpy butt, or maybe I just think about stuff too much. I just wrote this post so people could understand a little of what life was about for everyone involved in the military. Thank-YOU!!!!!!!!

  5. Great piece, SD! There was a time when far more people had military experience, and it was mainstream. These days it’s a specialty niche, small and foreign and mysterious enough to most of us that people forget what they can’t know, forget that there remains much variety, as you describe. Military experience is not mainstream anymore: it’s better than mainstream in many ways, yet very much a poorly understood minority experience. Politicians have also taught many of us to think that opinions on any given war or other military action are automatically tied somehow to “supporting the troops” or not. I suspect that some of the “thanks” crowd is trying to overcome the guilt that they’ve been sold: if they think a given war was/is/will be a poor choice, then they feel a need to prove they’re not disrespecting service members at the same time. It’s complicated and uncomfortable for all of us, it seems to me, but most of all for those in the niche.
    Thanks for your words – Greg

    • Thanks for the great comment (as always – such wise words). I guess I had never really looked at it that way. And I really shouldn’t whine at all, I should just accept the thanks at face value and not try to read more into it. I like Vicariously Speaking said I should appreciate they are making the effort. I have a friend whose son stepped on a landmine, he was completely eviscerated and lost 2 limbs and severely damaged a 3rd. He spent several years recovering from that and when it seemed he was doing okay, he committed suicide. So, when I complain about our experience in the military I feel really, really petty and perhaps that is why I am kind of embarrassed when people thank me, because none of what we went through makes up a millionth of what my friend’s family experienced.

      • I wouldn’t call it petty at all. Service members volunteer to take on tremendous burdens: risk of death and serious injury, loss of much of the freedom Americans take for granted, and so on. Then they have to deal with all kinds of weird baggage from clueless total strangers. I’d get irritated! Remember: it’s long been the case that some service members get harder jobs than others, more risk, worse outcomes. You all sign up for the possibility of the whole gamut. Survivor’s guilt seems far from petty to me.

      • Greg – you are such a wise fellow. You are right. I never thought of it as Survivor’s guilt, but maybe that is what it all boils down to. Thank-you!!!!

      • You’re welcome. “Wise” is kind. I have much experience and interest in helping people avoid being harder on themselves than they are with anyone else. It’s a very common scenario. Thanks – Greg

  6. You’ve written an argument here FOR being thanked! 🙂 I think you should just say, “You’re welcome” and move on. You don’t know who’s saying it or what they mean — it might be another veteran, it might be the child of someone who lost a parent in a war, it might be someone who completely sincere but awkward in expressing themselves. Like all compliments, it’s certainly embarrassing, but, you know, people mean well. I think it’s residue from Vietnam and the film “Born on the 4th of July” and the fact that we KNOW veterans do not always get the care and respect they need. There’s a lot of brainwashing about respecting the troops even if you hate the war. Honestly, considering that we have an all volunteer military, that makes no sense to me, but there it is.

    I’ve taught dozens of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans and my opinion is that many of them put their lives on the line for a shot at an education. Most of my students came from families too poor to send them to college. Many of them were damaged, significantly so. My feeling is not “thank you for your service” but “how can I kill the people who did this to you?” and I don’t mean the enemy. Last year one of the veterans in one of my classes went completely ape-shit when he was shown an Army recruiting video. “It’s not like that! It’s not like that! I can’t tell you what it is, but they don’t tell you you could die anywhere in that thing. You don’t know what I’ve seen…” He went on for a full five minutes. His brain was so messed up from his experiences that he couldn’t even remember a simple piece of information like, “The hook in an article is the first sentence.” I asked him, “OK, now, where will you find the hook?” “I don’t get it, Professor.” My response is NOT “thank you for your service” but “Are you OK? What can I do to help?” So…I don’t say anything.

    Personally, after having been in the classroom for 35 years, I think people should be thanking ME for my service but people don’t. 😉

    • Martha – what a great comment. That’s the thing, there are so many kids that go into the military thinking there is no chance they might be asked to put their life on the line. My sons’ friends talk about going into the military and I want to talk them out it, but I can’t. The recruiters paint such a rosy picture, they don’t tell you about how horrible the brainwashing is at basic training, and how as a military service member you are not allowed to have free thoughts, you follow orders without question. I was lucky because I went in as an officer, but it is hard to be a person that thinks differently from most, and I had to learn to keep my mouth shut very early on. My heart goes out to these kids who come back so broken, and to their families. It also goes out to all the Veterans that served their country and have just been dumped on the street corner, none of the promises the government made to them about being cared for upon their retirement or at the end of their service have come true.
      Being a teacher has to be one of the most thankless jobs, kind of like being a nurse, or a fireman or a police officer – nobody appreciates the sacrifices made. I have had teachers in my life that have completely steered me in a different direction because of their incredible gifts, still remember their names and faces. It’s a shame that people don’t take the time to thank their teachers, because they make such an impact on a child and student’s life.

      • Amen. I taught a young man — not so young, actually, late 30s, who’d been a sniper. This was (in my opinion) an awesome guy. He was TERRIFIED of writing. He said he’d gone into the army because he never did well in school. Soon I learned that he had a learning disability and intense anxiety partly because of fearing school but mostly from having been a sniper more or less for 20 years. Imagine. He sat in front of the class, directly in front of me. As the semester wore on, and he saw I was going to help him one-on-one he started sitting BESIDE me. At the end of the semester he’d managed to write about his experiences in Iraq, that he’d believed, when he joined up, that he was going to help the people in Iraq, then he went through a disillusioned moment when his best friend was killed (best friend from high school) RIGHT BESIDE him, then he went to sniper school, then he learned to see Iraqis as enemies (because they’d killed his friend), then he found he couldn’t live with that, seeing moms, dads and kids as enemies — this work he wrote was 20 pages long and I don’t think it was finished. Finally he decided the only career he could have would be in the Secret Service or the CIA. I can’t think of him without tearing up. He was a truly wonderful man warped by the education system and fifteen years of war. No. No recruiter ever tells anyone this.

      • That is such a sad story but also heart warming because of what you did. Doesn’t make you want to hit someone because of the internal and the external destruction and devastation? And see – what an amazing thing you did, to assist him in writing his thoughts out and dealing with some of this.

      • Yes, it definitely makes me want to hit someone — or hold someone accountable for “using” a life the way they used this man’s life. I did the best I could — he reminded me of a dog who’d been kept tied up and taught to fight then suddenly released and told to be a pet.

  7. Excellent piece. I really enjoyed reading this!

    I don’t usually say anything, although I have a lot of respect for people who go into it with honorable intentions.

  8. I very much appreciated your post. Thank you for taking the time to write it – it was well worded. I also appreciated all the commentary generated. I agree with M Kennedy – you did write an article in support of being thanked 🙂

  9. I agree, thanking a veteran for their service seems like a good thing – but it really isn’t enough considering what many veterans have lived through and it just seems like an awkward thing to say.

  10. I would feel like a jackass if I said to a stranger, “Thank you for your service,” so I understand you! Maybe if it was a different/better phrase, I dunno. I really DO appreciate your post because I have very little frame of reference for military service and I learned some things here. I echo what Big Red Carpet Nurse said about military service no longer being mainstream. I very recently watched a show on the draft; people were a lot more attentive to the military when it was in existence, especially when, during Viet Nam, they changed the lottery to be more equal in drawing from all ranks of society. The percent of people in the military, as compared to the whole population is really low, so most of us are disconnected. I don’t know how that could be changed in a meaningful way. I sometimes feel bad about how foreign the military and military service seem to me.

    Thank you for this post. I feel a little less uninformed.

  11. I always wondered about this, thinking, I wonder if they like that. Because I’ve seen that a few times. I thought it made them look like they felt “uncomfortable.” and so I would just smile and say hello and let the kids say hi.

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