Please Don’t Thank Me for My Service

My sister recently sent me a link to a New York Times article entitled, “Please Don’t Thank Me for My Service,” written by Matt Richtel, published on February 21, 2015. She asked me what I thought of it.

Like a bad heat rash on a hot summer day, the article irritated me. I agree that the “thank you for your service” phenomenon is real, but the attitudes and conclusions drawn by the veterans interviewed for this article seemed prickly and malformed; lacking in grace. Their comments made me suspect that on some level, they may still be wrestling with their war demons and have not fully resolved the conflict in the belly of their souls. They certainly do not speak for all of us.

It was 1977, seven years after my discharge from the Army, when someone first thanked me for my service in Vietnam. It was very significant to me and I can still remember every detail of the exchange.

I was working on the Alaskan pipeline in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. How awkward and self-conscious I was when the stranger walked right up to me and thanked me for my service. Unexpectedly, I felt a relief of sorts because it broke the strange, long silence that had existed between me and “them” about the Vietnam war. “Them” meaning everyone else. It was a bridge that helped me integrate more fully into civilian life. I was speechless then, and still mumble my appreciation when people thank me. I am still uncomfortable when a speaker asks all the veterans to stand up and be recognized on Veteran’s Day. I comply because of my wife’s insistent prodding that I stand, with repeated nudges against my leg.

I may sometimes be uncomfortable when thanked for my service, but not because people are insincere or shallow, or trying to assuage their civilian guilt, as the author of the Times article suggests. I’m pretty sure it’s our problem, not theirs. I would suggest that it’s perfectly natural to thank someone for serving their country, especially during a time of war and conflict. When you think about it, not to acknowledge the veterans’ service may be considered thoughtless. But not according to Freedman.

“They have no skin in the game with these wars. There’s no draft.” No real opinion either, he said. “At least with Vietnam, people spit on you and you knew they had an opinion.” “Thank you for your service,” he said, is almost the equivalent of “I haven’t thought about any of this.”

Similarly, Garth is offended when thanked. 

…Mr. Garth, 26, said that when he gets thanked, it can feel self-serving for the thankers, suggesting that he did it for them, and that they somehow understand the sacrifice, night terrors, feelings of loss and bewilderment. Or, don’t think about it at all.

“I pulled the trigger,” he said. “You didn’t. Don’t take that away from me.”

In response, I ask two simple questions. If not for them, then for whom did you serve? How does one’s nominal understanding of the effects of war disqualify his appreciation?

The passengers on Flight 1549 didn’t know how it felt for the pilot to fly an Airbus A320 into the Hudson, but that didn’t disqualify them from expressing their heartfelt gratitude toward Captain Scully for saving their lives. Their thanks were appropriate, real, and sincere. And how odd would it be for Captain Scully to smolder with resentment because they didn’t know how much he endured or the trauma he experienced while trying to protect them?

How can a civilian know the horrors of war without experiencing it firsthand? The whole point of the soldier going to war is so that others don’t have to. To respond by saying “I pulled the trigger, you didn’t,” seems suspiciously resentful, as though Mr. Garth is carrying a chip on his shoulder, revealed by the rest of his sentence, “don’t take that away from me”.

To borrow a line from Jack Nicholson in the movie A Few Good Men, “We live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You?…You…? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom.”

We stood on the wall for our nation because they needed us there. Most everyone gets that on some level. And when they get it, what naturally comes next is simply, “Thank you.” To equate the sentiment “Thank you for your service” with “I haven’t thought about any of this” is quite a leap on Mr. Freedman’s part.

I love Tim O’Brian’s writing. His book, The Things They Carried, is one of the best. He is the unofficial poet laureate of war. But I think he might be a little intoxicated with his own philosophy when he states that the appreciative are thanking him “without having the courage to ask whether the mission was even right.”

Can we appreciate the firefighters and police who stand on the wall daily within our cities without first having to define the motivations for our gratitude through the excruciating strainer of complete self-examination, or test our courage by asking if their “mission is even right?” And wouldn’t it be a strange response indeed for a firefighter or policeman to react with resentment and suspicion toward the thankful?

Those who are simply expressing heartfelt thanks should not undergo psychoanalytic scrutiny or have their motives impugned, or assumptions made about their thoughts or courage. Let gratitude remain and be humbly received.

I still stumble about… not knowing what to say other than “your welcome” when someone thanks me for my service. I’m sure in part because I experience that “thing” that happens. “Something in the stomach tumbles,” as Tim O’Brien describes it. Expressions of appreciation just don’t juxtapose well with “the evil, nasty stuff you do in war.” And, like Captain Scully, we were just doing our job the best we could and, for the record, I don’t consider us heroes. I reserve that distinction for those who didn’t make it home in one piece.

To Mr. Garth, Mr. Freedman and Mr. O’Brian, I say, “Thank you for your service.”

TB Stamper

Photo Credit: Horst Faas

Link to: Please Don’t Thank Me For My Service

6 Comments on “Please Don’t Thank Me for My Service

  1. Bart, in response to this article:
    For some people, “thank you” is difficult to accept, even difficult to say.
    Each person has the right to express an opinion on this subject. That’s what makes
    democracy work. Wars’ demons never die easily, never treat everyone the same.
    “Thank you” is a psychological medicine, each dose tailored to need.
    Jim Kelly

  2. Believe it or not, the first time I was thanked was in the Tucson Airport in 2002. I was on my way to Afghanistan and although I am now an Army Civilian Intelligence Officer, I had on my uniform (never miss a chance to wear the tab and scroll). This was the beginning of the Afghan War and the “Thank You” bug had not yet really caught on. The guy surprised me and when I stood up to shake his hand I didn’t know what to say. But I liked it; made me feel good. The way I look at this is that I fight for those who can’t. God gave us a gift that he didn’t give many people; perhaps that gift is a Damoclesian Sword at times, but it is a gift nonetheless. For many people all they can do is say “Thank You.” And I for one will not turn that down.

  3. Bart, I concur with Kerri . . . as I was reading this I wondered if you’d sent it to the Times. Your words are compelling as always as are hers.

  4. Bart, BRAVO! Excellent response. I too feel awkward when someone thanks me for my service in Vietnam but it is ALWAYS appreciated! Of course Vietnam vets can relate to feelings of anger young vets may have towards a society that sent them into harms way for questionable reasons. Vietnam era vets were told we were fighting to ‘stop communism’ and our way of life! Vietnam war wasn’t over two years when the government we trusted, began sending US manufacturing jobs to a COMMUNIST country, China! Today’s military youth are told they are fighting to protect ‘freedom’ and our way of life. However the truth is we are LOSING our freedoms AND way of life! The war profiteers (corporations) are now MANUFACTURING wars and enemies (ISIS, Al Qaeda, etc.) to keep the ‘Military Industrial Complex’ running! These young vets are going through the SAME reality ‘adjustments’ we found ourselves in! No matter what war or era ALL veterans are BROTHERS in arms! The bottom line, for ALL vets young and old, is to receive a ‘Thank You for your Service’ from ALL people graciously without judgement!

  5. It always amazes me when someone can put the words down that all of us feel. It even amazes me more when that person is a brother who not only defended his country he covered my back side on several occasions. Thanks Bart for your heartfelt thoughts.

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