I’m not really sure that I like hearing people thank me for my military service. It always sounds strange, if nothing else. What do you say when a stranger walks up to you and says, “thank you for fighting for my freedom?” Do you say you’re welcome? It seems silly.
I don’t doubt the sincerity of these remarks in the least. People want to acknowledge veterans, which I certainly appreciate, but there has to be a better way to do it. Saying, “thank you for my freedom” is clunky, however genuine, and my response, a hesitant, “you’re welcome” seems equally out-of-place. Thankful for what? That you have no idea?
There are things that should be better known about veterans. Frankly, I don’t think I’ve heard anybody talk about them before, which could be part of the problem. First, while we all enjoy hearing somebody acknowledge our service, part of us is thinking, “you have no idea what you’re thanking me for.” Another part of us is somewhat embarrassed, since not one of us, when under fire, running for cover, or rushing to the aid of a fallen comrade is thinking about our country, patriotism, or freedom. We’re thinking about the guys next to us or the guy on the ground and praying to God that they all live to come home. We’re also praying for our own safety.
Yet another part of us feels that we don’t deserve the thanks, even though we enjoy it. The ones who deserve it never lived long enough to hear it. You may say, “thank you,” but we’re thinking “no, thank THEM – even though they can’t hear you now.” You thank us, but in our heart of hearts, not one of us – the living – believe we’ve done nearly enough.
We deployed as cohesive units, dysfunctional little families sent out into strange places where we endured a myriad of attacks and lost some of our friends and comrades. Though we all know that war invariably sends home fewer than arrived, we view the holes in the ranks with a degree of personal failure. None of us did enough.
Then we get angry at people for being ignorant and trying to approach us with gratitude we don’t feel we deserve. Some of us accuse you of being condescending, though I don’t think any of you are. You just don’t know what else to say, and we don’t have a clue what to say in return. Point at some graves and say “thank them?” It seems disrespectful – not only to you, but also to the many we’ve seen broken and fallen.
There are demons in all of us saying, “If you have all you limbs, you didn’t do enough. If you had bullets left, you didn’t shoot enough. If you got out before the war was ended and won, you didn’t serve enough. If you lived, you didn’t sacrifice enough, so you don’t deserve any thanks.” Some people call it survivor’s guilt. I just call it reality. The veteran experience is one of intense pride but marred with equally intense grief. We made it, but others did not, so we must not have given it our fullest. “Thank you” is hard to hear, and harder still to answer.
How about saying this: “I remember.” That solemn statement is enough. We don’t expect you to fully understand what a war is like, which is fine. We served so you don’t have to know – ever. But we do want you to remember. Remember that there are only two days in the year when veterans, both living and dead receive any unified recognition for their service and sacrifices. Remember that if you put up a flag, you really shouldn’t take it down when the “holiday” is over. Remember that there are thousands of families that feel the pang of a missing loved one every day; not just Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day.
Remember that there are men and women who did things and will never be the same. Remember that there are generations of broken bodies and hearts who will forever be convinced that they should have done more. Remember that the living veterans will never forget the faces of the dead – and wonder why some survived and others did not. Remember that this country and the freedoms we all enjoy aren’t innate; they were purchased at high cost. We didn’t purchase them, not really, but we fought alongside those who did. And we remember them more than anybody. They’ll haunt us until we join them…