Thank You for Your Service?

Here we are, the week after Thanksgiving. We have recovered from turkey, stuffing, overeating, football games, family, and steering clear of politics around the dinner table or during half-time. Christmas is just over the horizon, and Veterans Day 2018 is a fading memory.

If not today, very soon asking someone what they did on Veterans Day will likely bring a blank stare or one of those, is-he-kidding looks. After all, it is just one of those holidays designed to interrupt our mail service and give federal employees another day off. At least that is the way many may think of it if they think of it at all before next November.

Fortunately, some folks understand Veterans Day is more than an excuse for a day off or a cookout. Many of these people believe honoring those who served, and in many cases died, in the service of our country is a privilege, possibly a duty. Even more seem to feel a need to honor our veterans in some fashion, though they may not be sure why.

Confusion in the area of honoring, acknowledging, or thanking veterans is nothing new. Over the decades one could watch the ebb and flow of our respect for those who wear this nation’s uniforms, risking life and limb to keep it secure. From the honor shown to the Greatest Generation following World War II to the disdain, even disgust, shown those who served in Vietnam, to the confusion created by 9/11 and the hostilities in the Middle East, the nation has struggled to know when, where, and how to say thank you to those who risk their lives to keep us safe.

The horrific events of 9/11 changed the nation’s understanding of warfare, service, and sacrifice. For the first time in modern history, the U. S. mainland suffered an attack resulting in mass casualties. Those atrocities changed a nation’s understanding of what it means to serve one’s country.

Suddenly, the nation understood those who serve in uniform, whether they be firefighters, police officers, soldiers, sailors, or other uniformed services were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to keep us and our country safe. Their sacrifices, at ground zero and later in the Middle East, lifted the veil of uncertainty from a population still wondering about the Vietnam era. Once again, it was time to say thank you to the men and women who protect and serve this country.

Sadly, another problem arose. How, precisely, does one express gratitude to a serviceman or woman for going to battle in some far off land? How does one, or should one, thank a firefighter or police officer for, most of the time, merely doing the job? If that were not enough of a quandary, another issue became apparent over time. How the focus of one’s gratitude reacted.

Over the years I watched people struggle with knowing how and when to approach someone in uniform and say thank you. More important, I watched and heard how hard it was for those in uniform to respond to those who want to express their thanks.

In many cases, the soldier, officer, or other service member looked like a deer in the headlights before mumbling a thank you. I also watched those who offered their thanks walk away shaking their heads wondering why the object of their effort reacted in such a low key manner. In too many instances, the contact was mutually frustrating instead of gratifying.

It is possible such interaction can be precisely what one hopes. A person walks up to someone in uniform and says, “Thank you for your service.” The recipient of the thanks handles the contact just as one might expect, and they part company feeling a little better about their world that day. If only they were all like that.

Quite often, the problem is on the receiving end. The majority of the people who serve, regardless of how or where they serve, are not seeking praise, or even recognition. They are serving because they are called, at some level, to do so. Their recognition comes from those with whom they serve, their family, and friends. They would quite often rather someone threaten them than say thanks. Those who serve know how to handle aggression. Kindness, on the other hand, is unexpected, possibly suspicious, and to some degree embarrassing.

Assuming my thoughts are right, what is the point of this piece. Am I suggesting thanking someone for their service is wrong? Am I accusing those who wish to thank someone of having an ulterior motive? Am I blaming those who wear the uniforms of being ungrateful? No, no, and no!

What I am saying is this. Should you choose to thank a member of the military, a firefighter, a police officer, a paramedic, or anyone else for their service go ahead. Understand, however, that not everyone you approach knows how to accept your comments. This can be especially true when using the term, thank you for your service. As noted above, many find this embarrassing, and will not react with what you perceive as gratitude. That does not mean they do not appreciate the gesture. It just shows they do not know how to respond.

You on the other hand, if your comment was sincere, have tried to do something nice.  Regardless of their reaction, you can walk away knowing you reached out and can feel good about your effort. With that said, it may be possible to express your gratitude in a way that the service member can understand and accept more easily. 

My thoughts on this issue were triggered by an unfortunate situation developing just prior to Veterans Day. The incident involved a poorly thought out comedic skit on television.  

The skit, in the form of a satirical news commentary, ridiculed a newly elected member of Congress and disabled veteran, Dan Crenshaw. The skit was, to say the least, offensive. So offensive in fact viewer reaction resulted in a public and hopefully heartfelt apology on the part of the comedian and the show.

In addition to the apology, Congressman-elect Crenshaw appeared on television with the comedian. They then engaged in their own little skit concerning the incident, and the Congressman-elect was given time to comment on the situation and how to thank veterans of all types.

Lt. Commander Crenshaw, Ret. shared the need for us to settle our differences in a fashion similar to what we witnessed on television that evening. He went on to suggest a different way to connect with military veterans, and, by implication, others who served or sacrificed in the line of duty. He suggested we use the phrase, “Never forget” instead of “Thank you for your service.” His comments rang true to me, which is why you are reading them.

Before, closing I have one more thought to share with those who might want to thank someone for their service or tell them never forget. Do not say it if you do not mean it. Thank you for your service has become the have-a-good-day of the twenty-first century United States. People throw out thank-you-for-your-service in a knee-jerk fashion, and everyone knows it. None who served or serve in any capacity want a thank you that is meaningless or a platitude. If you aren’t certain you can give a heartfelt thanks, just smile, nod, and pass on by. 

I cannot swear the Congressman-elect was right about his suggestion.  Some approached that way may have a quizzical never-forget-what look on their face. Still, it may be worth trying.  To that end, I will close with the following.

I have something to say to Robert Tuel, Michael Lynch, and the others with whom I’ve worked, shared a story, cried, or laughed throughout the years. “Never Forget!”

© OneOldCop – 2018

About S. Eric Jackson

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