Medic sent this query to his friends: what do you feel and think and say when someone says “Thank you for your service.”
When someone thanks me for my service, I return a genuine “Thank you.” I am not uncomfortable, but I am a bit hesitant to accept the grace meant to honor my service. So much more is going on with me in that exchange. There is the senselessness of the conflict I was part of; the death and mayhem witnessed, the grief, the fear. I know that what is said genuinely comes from their heart, or at least from a place of empathy. They have no idea what my experience was, but they’ve obviously dared a thought towards what that experience must have been like. I know that they will never know, could never know, and so I simply respond: “Thank you,” and smile.
Over the years I believe America has been made aware as to how veterans of the Vietnam conflict were received when we returned home. I was never spit upon, but I was called a baby-killer by a co-worker. She had no idea that my first duty as a combat medic in Vietnam was to assist our doctor in the delivery of a Vietnamese baby girl, and I had not been in-country twenty-four hours yet. My first experience was the birth of a child…not death. That came soon enough, and often. She had no idea of the turmoil hidden deep within me. She could not fathom how my life had been forever changed by my experience. Most of America did not know how to accept us…what to say to us. We simply faded into the murkiness of processing our daily, uneasy journey, battling the beast that returned home with us and waited for the moment to claw at our lives.
During a session of counseling at the local VA, my counselor held her opened palms inches from her ears. “This…”she said, “…is where the majority of we civilians live our lives.” Moving her hands further from the sides of her head, she continued, “This is where you combat veterans live. You have been exposed to so much more than we.” I had never thought of it that way, but it makes perfect sense. It explains the tendency to ignore insignificant and mundane issues that may be important to others, but have no relevancy in a combat veterans world view.
Example: I was involved in a group discussion that had asked the question, “What time in your life did you have a life changing experience, and how did your faith in God help you?”
I sat and listened to the stories in silent astonishment as each person answered; The first days at college away from home, buying a first home and losing sleep over the financial commitment, interviewing for a job…all valid issues, yes. But in my world view they were trivial and bland experiences! As I listened, I argued with myself to remain silent and not show open disdain towards my co-workers and their humdrum stories. I knew it wasn’t their fault …it was their life and world view based on their experiences. I did not want to shame them or have them pity me. I did not want to harbor animosity towards them.
When the question landed on me I hesitated to collect my thoughts. Where do I begin? What do I say? Should I even mention Vietnam and lay my experience on them? I took a breath, looked down at the conference table and began. I told them of death, the smell, sights and sounds of war, and of having to come to terms with the possibility of my own death on a daily basis. I talked of Vietnam, and the night I had screamed at God for an explanation, and that God was silent that star-filled evening, Heaven was far from near, and the death continued regardless.
This is my world view, in-part, and what shapes my thoughts, including the innocent tribute, whether empathic or obligatory: “Thank you for your service.” Where it once was uncomfortable to hear, I now find it easier to accept. However, I have made the decision to reply: “Thank you, I appreciate your gracious thought. You can continue to be of help to us veterans by paying close attention to those politicians who dismiss veterans as an expense and obstruct passage of veteran’s benefits and issues. and not send them back to congress, Republican or Democrat. ”
I like that.
My response when someone utters the words, “Thank you for your service”, is a polite ‘Thank you’. I guess I am so far removed from being in the Army and too, the way Viet Nam veterans were treated when we all came home, it’s almost that I don’t even hear what they have said to me.
What this vet would rather hear more than anything is “Welcome Home” from another veteran. That is the ultimate, “Thank you for your service”, which has much more meaning for me.
I’m glad in today’s society that finally we’re paying the respect and admiration to our Armed Forces. I am proud to have served and I’m proud of our military brothers and sisters that are serving our country today. God bless America and our military!
Please don’t thank me for my service. I was taken against my will, yanked away from all the hopes and plans I had for my life, and made to see and experience things that contradicted anything and everything I had ever been taught about right and wrong. I heard the screams of someone dying, far away from home, a fragile human being blown apart, for no good reason. I saw burnt, bloodied, maimed children. And men, and women. I smelled the scent of open wounds, of flowing blood and burnt flesh. I felt the splatter of someone’s loss of life as it exploded across my face, and no matter how many times I have washed my face over the past 47 years I cannot wash away that horrible stain. And you would thank me for that? I abandoned my morality. I lost my equilibrium. I cannot tell you much of what I learned, but it wasn’t worth a damned thing in the civilian workplace, in my baby’s nursery, or at the checkout of the grocery store. It is only a spectre, a dense dark monster that pursues me in the night; that colors my view every day in ways no one else can see. Too many nights, almost half a century later, the horror twists my stomach into knots. Oh, I know, you thank me because you don’t know anything else to say. You still hope that it was all about freedom and democracy and good things like that, and not just about profits and power, authority and career advancement and some ancient goddamed illicit definition of the word masculine. It was about corporate profits and garish stripes sewn onto a sleeve, about genocide and the screwed-up notion that you can make a total stranger’s existence better by killing or maiming him. I was playing in a rock ‘n roll band when they came for me, reciting songs about understanding and brotherhood and love. They took me against my will, stripped me naked and beat me bloody, and they sent me to the other side of the world where death fell out of the sky and exploded, and its shards tore up anything and anybody they hit. I learned to lie as flat as possible on the mud, to will my body to become a puddle and sink down into the ooze. I learned to overcome the terror, the violent tremors, and I learned that none of those things matter when your number is up. I learned it happens to the very best guys, in the very worst ways, and there’s nothing right or righteous about it; they were just wasted. Please, oh please don’t thank me. If you want to express something, promise me you will get involved in the struggle to abolish wars. Nothing else will say that you understand.
Then I will thank you.
John is the author of the acclaimed Vietnam memoir “...and a hard rain fell. A GI’s True Story of the War in Vietnam.”
Three out of five times it is a middle aged woman. One out of the other two will also be a woman; younger or older. The occasional man will invade my space; come up to me, like the women; grab my hand, shake it and begin to profusely, effusively, thank me for my “Service”. If I hadn’t already made a deal with the universe/god/my conscience to always have a pin or patch with Veterans For Peace on my body while in public to help assuage my guilt; survivor’s and otherwise; I would think of going out in the World disguised as a “civilian”, to avoid these heart felt thank you moments. As it is, part of my guilt is that I was never in direct combat, but anything identifying the wearer as a Veteran implies the worst to most citizens. At first I would try to explain my noncombatant/R.E.M.F. status to them. One more thing about the military experience they could not understand: why had it effected me so strongly if I wasn’t in direct combat.
Over the years, I have responded in different ways. At first, I did not know what to think, what to say and would stammer something like, “No, don’t thank me.” and before I could say more they would insist on the thank you. Then I tried saying that I had not chosen to do the “Service”. I had been drafted, but again, they cut me off. After a while, I got more adamant about getting my say. I tried things like, “You don’t owe me anything.”, but before I could get much more out; I was steamrolled with a salvo of heart felt acknowledgements of their gratitude. After a while, I got a thicker skin about it and would say, in a tight, angry voice, “You are welcome” and move on as fast as possible, but then their feelings got hurt. Their intentions were, after all good; mostly. Some were suffering from their own version of survivor’s guilt and were thanking me to make themselves feel better.
Then there was a short period were I thought of responding with this line: “You are welcome. You know I killed that one particular VC just for you.” A couple of combat veteran friends laughed at that, but were relived when I told them that I never had done such a thing. Some times I want to shock the World.
I wear the Veterans For Peace button/badge, as I had said to atone; also to support the cause and on the least altruistic level because; I can never stop being a Veteran; never let go of War, so, why should civilians have the privilege of forgetting about war. There is a little “In-Your-Face” aspect.
The answer I now offer to people with “Heart Felt Thank Yous” is to say, “I did not want to go to war and I would hope that no one ever had to go again; as unrealistic as that hope is. If you really want to thank me, work for Peace.” and then I offer them a card with the Veterans For Peace, VVAW, IVAW, Courage to Resist, Free Bradly Manning, Oxfam, Heifer and because I live in Oakland, Ca., the Alameda County Food Bank websites and suggest they get involved or at least donate. Some take it and a few of those probably do at least make a donation.
The other day, I got another twist. The University of Iowa Department of English, which publishes the Iowa Review put out a request for veteran writers to submit to a special issue. I sent a few things in and waited the six or eight weeks for the polite, but impersonal rejection letter. When it came, the last line read: “Thank you for your service to our country…”
I think we served honorably in an unjust war. The unjust bit wasn’t our fault, but still it gets me down. I don’t get thanked for my service very often, because I don’t advertise my vet status. Therefore it really isn’t a problem. I just don’t like being thanked because I feel guilty for helping to cause misery to the Vietnamese people for no good end and no good reason.
I’m happy to have served with all my comrades, but unhappy with where the service took place. I feel proud that I was able to step up to the plate and do my bit in spite of being scared out of my gourd sometimes. But again that feels tainted because of the war I was in. In many ways being there was the best bit of my life, and I actually regret not staying on at least until my buddy Ken Cruise left for home. I was pretty fucked up in the head at the end. Probably not worth anything much as soldier, but maybe it would have passed.
My uncles served in WW II, but my dad was too young. I always looked up to them and wanted to be like them. That was a big reason I enlisted. I feel kind of robbed because my war wasn’t nearly as honorable as theirs.
I also don’t like the phrase when applied to the most recent wars. I have a good friend (infantry) that fought in the 1st Gulf war. I think that one was justified and well conducted even though the government did some lying to drum up support. But Bush Jr’s wars based on out-and-out lies were not just, and were certainly not well conducted. These wars have added greatly to the misery of the people in the Middle East. The war in Afghanistan didn’t get Bin Laden. We probably could have spent a large sum of money as a bounty, would have been miniscule compared to what that war cost. Someone would have sold that bastard out. But no. Bush wanted to be the “War President” and show up his dad.
Thank you for your service. I don’t like the phrase because I don’t want to be in support of our continued bullying of other peoples. Intellectually I separate soldiers from policies, but emotionally that doesn’t work. Therefore I don’t like the phrase, especially when it is said to me. It’s embarrassing really.
I was a reluctant soldier, having been active in SDS and in peace marches during my college years. After I graduated I was drafted into the Army. They were still drafting into the Marines at that time and it felt like a relief when they told us were were all headed to Fort Dix, not Parris Island. While in basic training I connected with anti-war activists, but never visited any of the coffee houses or other meeting places. I did join the “American Serviceman’s Union,” and got alternative newspapers like The National Guardian.
After being discharged, with great relief, I continued to support anti-war efforts & eventually discovered Veterans For Peace. Our VFP unit in Albany, NY marches in the Veterans (Armistice) Day and Memorial Day parades with the more traditional veterans organizations. Often at the parades, & when standing peace vigils in my VFP hat or sweat shirt people will stop to say “Thank you for your service.” I sense their courtesy, in some way their awkwardness in how to acknowledge the “service” of veterans. I prefer to bring a message of peace without being judgmental or confrontational and have struggled to find a short way to respond beyond a somewhat meaningless “you’re welcome” or “thank you.” I now respond, with a big smile, “My real service is working for peace.” People are often surprised by that, but continue to smile and sometimes say “thank you” again.
It was in Scollay Square restaurant a couple of years ago. The restaurant is right next to the State House, on Beacon Hill in downtown Boston. There were tourists, lobbyists, and business folk all around us, and they and the dishes and the silver were all very loud. I was finishing up a long overdue lunch with a poet friend, and as I had not seen him in a good long while, we spent most of the hour just catching up on the past year. When the check came, I grabbed it before he could, took out my credit card, slipped it into the sleeve, and gave it to the waiter. It was a credit card from USAA, the United Services Automobile Association.
In recent years USAA has been advertising on TV, but for most of my life it was hardly ever advertised. I first got the credit card in 1969, when I was in Quantico, VA, and had just been commissioned as a lieutenant in the USMC. If memory serves me well, membership in the association was reserved then for officers and NCOs, but in now it was open to any active-duty personnel and their families. Hence the TV ads. Over the years I have often thought I should rid myself of this last vestige of my involvement in the American military. I was in for two years, and left in Sept. 1970, as one of the first Marine officers to be honorably discharged as a conscientious objector. I did not go to Vietnam during the war years, and first visited the country only in 1994. But as a writing teacher I have many times in the years since worked often with veterans, occupying a kind of liminal zone of veteran-hood combined with pacifism. As I think of it now, it was mostly inertia and laziness, and a dash of low interest rate that kept the USAA credit card in my wallet.
When the waiter came back with the bill, I quickly calculated and wrote in the tip, and handed him the receipt. He said thanks, and then with all the sincerity in the world, he added, “and thank you for your service.” My poet friend is also a veteran, and we both cringed at the phrase. Later, as we walked to the corner to say goodbye, I noted that the waiter probably recognized the card from the TV commercial, and just assumed his “thank you” was something I would be glad to hear and grateful for.
I probably should have said something. I probably should have taken a moment to explain to this young waiter what my service actually was. I should have told him that my rejection of military service was my real “service.” I could have been grumpier about it all, and maybe have taken the time to explain to him that the “thank you” gesture had already become a cliché. That it had become meaningless, despite any earnest good will he felt. I could have gone deeper, even held forth on the way that phrase was just too easy to say, that not knowing what the person being thanked had actually done or lived through made the whole gesture in no small way inauthentic. I thought too of my veteran friends from the three or four wars now in my lifetime, especially those friends who carried a weight of post-traumatic distress. How the thank you phrase itself kept knowledge of that kind of distress at arm’s length, boxed up, sealed, quarantined.
I also could have pontificated as well, pointing out that underneath the phrase was an echo of privilege. It was like thanking the housekeeping staff for doing a good job polishing the floor, making the bed. There was also a “glad it was you and not me” note being sounded in it. Underneath the apparent good will of the phrase, there was and still is a kind of casual and yet dangerous sentimentality. Strictly speaking, in a democracy we make collective decisions about war and peace. “Thank you for your service turns difficult questions in the relations between civilian responsibility and military action into a too-easily digested commodity. It’s a little dollop of social grease used to avoid facing up to the abrasions that come with questionable wars.
Of course I didn’t say any of this. I hardly had words for what I was thinking and feeling at that instant. It was lunch-time, the restaurant was loud, and the young waiter had tables to wait on, lots of customers to serve. I am sure the young waiter meant no harm in what he said. I actually thought maybe someone in his family was in the military, maybe it was his own ritual magic designed to protect someone whose life was not as secure as ours. Or maybe not. Maybe he was reflexively just repeating what he had heard. As best as I can remember I probably just said my own pro-forma thank you to him, no snarkiness. I also reminded myself again to shuck my life of that damn USAA credit card. And yes, I gave him 20%.
Fred has the distinction of being one of the first Marine Corps officers to be honorably discharged for conscientious objection, during the war in Vietnam
Air Force Weather Officer/Chief Forecaster
Detachment 18, 30th Weather Squadron
Thank you for your service is a well-intentioned phrase on the part of civilians and a cover by government agencies to hide their own deficiencies with a simple slogan to make things right.
Due to my extensive academic background, and life long interest in weather, I was the chief forecaster at Cam Ranh Bay. At the time there was a wing of F-4 Phantom jets, C-7A Caribou transports, transient C-130s, Freedom Birds, R&R charter flights, Army P2V aircraft, Navy patrol planes, and an Army Airfield at Dong Ba Thin. My unit provided weather support and climatic briefings when called upon. With certain exceptions, it was a good rear job.
Returning from Vietnam in October 1969, I never once heard that phrase. Instead, as a graduate assistant working at Rutgers University, I was the recipient of nasty comments from a foreign graduate student and several undergrads. WWII faculty members were more encouraging.
One night, when I was walking from the college library to my office, a female student asked me if I would escort her back to her dorm; crime problems were her concern. It turned out we had met eleven years ago. It was a pleasant surprise and a subtle form of welcome home.
Upon completing my graduate degree I had a bad interview experience at a government agency. The interviewer didn’t care about my Vietnam service or awards. He eventually went to prison for molesting young girls.
When I scored high in a job exam for the Social Security Administration, instead of being thanked for my service, the interviewer looked at my resume and said I would not be a good fit. “As a captain in the Air force, you are probably used to pushing people around, and we can’t have that in this agency!” he said. Long ago I accepted that my Air Force service in Vietnam would never be acknowledged, and began using the Jewish principle of Tikkun olam, or ‘repairing the world.’
I returned to school and received an Associates degree in Respiratory Therapy. I became a registered respiratory therapist and cardio-pulmonary function technician and evening respiratory supervisor at a local community hospital.
In 1997 I came down with cancer, along with heart problems and diabetes, all from exposure to Agent Orange. The VA awarded me a disability rating of 100%. Prior to a 45 mile trip to the VA hospital in East Orange, NJ for a medical evaluation, I was reminded of the visit three times by phone calls which included the phrase “Thank you for your service.” When I arrived at the VA I was told to go home. The doctor assigned to me was absent; another doctor refused to see me.
I believe government agencies should avoid using empty platitudes. I believe the most sincere way civilians can thank veterans is to ask, “Is there some way I can help you in going from military to civilian life and work? Would you like to tell me about your military experience? Is there another way I might help you?”
Folks Sometimes Say
Folks sometimes say:
What branch where you in?
What did you do?
Were you in war?
Did you kill anybody?
Dear ones please know that asking a vet
about war brings up hard memories. It is
like asking a victim of sexual assault
about their rape.
Folks sometimes say, oh you didn’t
see the bodies, so it can’t be that bad.
Group fired weapons are difficult to
parse out culpability. My watch station
did enable 52 tomahawk cruise missiles
though others fired. We
all laid in stores and munitions.
My soul does bear the burden of one who has
taken life. My conscience does carry
the full weight of my actions. My heart
was broken, humpty dumpty style, never
to be put back together again.The
truth Is that there are no uninjured
participants of war.
Folks sometimes say, thank
you for your service. I am brought
back to the fact that I was onboard
a Destroyer, aptly named, as that
is what we did. I am being thanked
for destruction, I am reminded I am
a murderer each time.
Folks sometimes say…
don’t say anything to veterans about the
war. If you really are curious, get to know
them, ask them about their lives. War is not a
topic of light conversation. If you have
to say something, just say welcome home.
Five simple words. I had to wait 30 years to hear them. Now it seems like they are said too often. Five words I wanted so much to hear for so long, now cause me to cringe.
I was drafted into the Army in 1969. I didn’t enlist. I didn’t want to go. However, once in, I decided to serve to the best of my ability. I was placed in the infantry and arrived in Viet Nam in late 1969. I served as a combat infantryman, a rifleman, until I was wounded on April 23, 1970, and subsequently evacuated to recover at Walter Reed Army Hospital. I was medically discharged in January 1971.
At that time, veterans were not held in high esteem by society at large. I cannot recall having someone thank me for my military service. It just was not done. I managed to blend in and most people I encountered had no idea I was a veteran. At the time, this seemed normal. Society was unable to separate the veteran from the government policy toward the Viet Nam war.
In the early 1990’s, during the first Iraq/Gulf war, the attitude of the public changed. Even those who were anti-war, were pro veterans. It became fashionable to recognize and thank veterans for serving in the military. Society could separate the service of the veteran from the policy of the government.
The first time someone said to me, “Thanks for your service,” I was thrilled. I had a warm feeling. Finally I was recognized. It seemed like the stain of serving in Viet Nam was being erased.
As time has gone on, and the “Thanks” have continued, I have developed an aversion to hearing those words. I realize that the vast majority of those uttering this phrase are non-veterans. They have no idea what they are thanking me for. It is almost like they have a guilt complex for not having served in the military and this act somehow relieves them of that guilt.
Most veterans greet me, and I them, with the phrase, “Welcome Home.” This is very meaningful to Viet Nam vets as we never received our welcome home when we returned. This phrase is almost a short hand code used between those of us who actually served and know what war and combat mean. It is also used and understood with current veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
During one recent session with my therapist, she said, “Thanks for your service.” I reacted badly. I felt that if she didn’t get it, how could anyone else. We had a long discussion during which I explained how I felt about this convenient slogan. In the end, she agreed to further reading and talking with other therapists and vets. During our last session, she said, “Welcome Home.”
Now when someone utters the five simple words, I may cringe, but I remind myself they mean well, but they just have no idea what they are saying, what they are thanking me for. In the end, it is better to be thanked, even out of guilt, than to be ignored.
82nd Airborne Combat Aviation Brigade
Afghanistan 2007-2008 and 2009-2010
“Thank you for your service.” My response to that phrase ten years ago was dramatically different than what it is now. When I first heard those words, I was a twenty-one year old newly commissioned lieutenant with a whole lot of idealism and not the least bit of understanding regarding war’s realities. So I accepted the phrase with what I thought proper – a small nod, and a quiet “Thank you” in return.
I remember thinking that I didn’t really deserve thanks, since I hadn’t done anything yet, but how would a stranger know that? And why would an introverted and overly courteous young woman voice that thought when the only possible outcome would be the discomfort of the person who had offered kind words to begin with? I continued with my “nod, thank, and move on” response as a safe bet.
As soon as I finished flight school, I was shipped to Afghanistan. The two best words I can come up with to describe that place are breathtaking and brutal. I vividly remember my very first flight. Sitting in a complex, multi-million dollar helicopter and looking down on mud-brick huts and hand-tilled fields made me think, “If not for this machine, I’d believe that we’ve just been transported 2,000 years back in time”.
Over the course of hundreds of flights, my brain registered images of epic mountains, lonely desert, and lush river valleys, but it balked at burned-out Russian tanks and women running for cover at the sound of our approach. I saw things that made me laugh, like a family of four riding a single motorbike, and things that seared my brain even as I tried to ignore them, like a row of Afghan men against a wall with black hoods over their heads. I had been one of the pilots who landed in their village in the dead of night and dropped off special forces who put every “military age male” in zip tie handcuffs and hoods before shoving them onto our aircraft to take back to the FOB for interrogation.
At the time, I questioned nothing, for the reasoning always went something like “these could be the guys who keep shooting rockets at us while we’re sleeping” or “I’m not taking any chances, that mortar hit so close to our aircraft that my bones are still shaking”. One of the worst days of my life entailed flying to a crash site in order to pick up the burned remains of an aircrew. I never saw the bodies, never even got out of the aircraft. The infantrymen on site were responsible for the horrific task of filling body bags, and our crew chiefs then loaded them in the back. The pilot next to me said, “There’s a smell you’ll never forget”. His words are what I can’t get out of my head. The military dubbed those kind of flights “Hero Missions”.
That word, hero, never sounded the same to me after that. Neither did bagpipes, or the song “Amazing Grace”. Those things were a part of every “ramp ceremony”, and they now cause me irrational panic. For every American death over there, we were lined up on the tarmac in rigid formations, holding salutes until our arms shook as flag-draped coffins passed in front of our eyes and onto a plane headed for home. I wanted to be on the plane, just not in the box. When I did get home, I didn’t respond anymore to “Thank you for your service”. I simply said nothing. The phrase made me feel incredibly conflicted.
I originally went to Afghanistan believing in the mission, believing in the evil of terrorists and the “just cause” we were sent to fight for. I even defended the war when other Americans began to question it. But ultimately I left that country wondering if we were doing more harm than good. No one who risks their life for a cause wants to find out that it was for naught. I fought against that possibility long and hard. Eventually, I faced reality. I shed the uniform after completing my contract, and I’ve been pursuing answers ever since.
I have regrets about participating in violence for profit, but being honest about that means responding to “Thank you for your service” (and it’s corresponding mentality) with “Don’t thank me, I was wrong”. As of yet, I’ve never had the personal courage to say that. I find relief in the fact that people rarely say it to me anymore, since I don’t wear a uniform, or a ball cap that proclaims my veteran status. You won’t find a veteran status on my license plate, or an Army bumper sticker on my car. My identity is more than that. Some people might question my patriotism, but that would be incorrect. I simply choose to fight for peace now, rather than rush to war. I choose to respect the military by saying their lives should only be at risk as a very last, and very rare, resort. I choose to bring attention to a veteran suicide rate of 22 per day, and say that it shouldn’t be a surprise to the general public. I choose to honor my family’s long history of military service by working the rest of my life to prevent the next generation from ever seeing war, and from ever having to hear the phrase “Thank you for your service”.
Last week, as I was starting to leave an event, I got into a conversation with someone, and somehow I mentioned that I had been in Vietnam with the Marines in 1966. The fellow immediately reached out to shake my hand, saying “Thank you for your service.” I immediately stepped back and said “Please don’t thank me, I wish that I had never been there.”
He didn’t inquire if I had killed or saved anyone. I did say that I felt lucky to never to have fired my weapons nor killed anyone. I wish I had added, “However, I spent a lot of time in foxholes ready to shoot whoever attacked me. I was in harm’s way.” And I would not do that today. War is immoral.
I recall now that the first time someone had said “Thank you for your service” was just a few years ago on the Boston Common, after I and other vets had demonstrated against some military operation by the USA. I was taken aback by that phrase. In all those years I’ve been back, no one had ever said that to me, and there were three teens passing by, making that same comment. I just looked at them and graciously said ‘Thank you.”
I wondered later what the origin and idea of that was. Did these kids understand the experience that a veteran has seen? Who prompted them to say it? They seemed sincere, and I am sure they thought that they were being compassionate, and maybe grateful to us. I do not think they understood why we were protesting. In hindsight I would have liked to have asked them those questions. It could have been a teachable moment!
So, why do I react so defensively? Maybe it is because it comes off as a shallow statement. It could be a conversation starter, but I don’t think that has been my observation. I have tried to think of a succinct response, one that encourages a discussion of why we go to war. Why we are so willing to send our sons and daughters into harm’s way.
I think part of my reaction has to do with how I became a non-violent activist, and my resulting disdain for those who are not. I try to not be judgmental of people. I see the effect that violence has in the media, the effect that PTSD has on military families, and the violence of the have-nots, who feel hopeless about their economic situation.
I was brought up with the Golden Rule and tried to bring up my boys that way. I think I had a good high school and college education that showed respect to fellow students. Although I have to say that there was a violent guy at my high school football game that started a fight afterward. It lasted into the night, causing the police to bar people from going into the adjoining town. I knew it was one person causing this so I kept my respect for others.
So, it wasn’t til Northeastern University, where they had mandatory participation in ROTC, that I began to feel something changing. When I flunked out of NU, knowing eligible for the draft, I enlisted in the Marines. I was told they were the toughest, and it was at Parris Island that I found it might be true. I recall bayonet training (pugilism), raising questions about how aggressive we had to be, and the DIs had us striking blows at each other! These guys were mean.
A year and ½ later they put us on a boat and did not tell us- until we were miles from port-that we were sailing to Vietnam. For the remainder of the voyage I felt the dread that I would not return.
I was in a missile outfit, and suffered the view of being behind the enemy lines, always on guard. I experienced the constant fear of attack, and a firsthand view of a fragging and its aftermath.
So, it was a great relief when my orders to return stateside came through. So many stories I could tell but who cares? I received an early-out to go back to college, to a new life that I could control.
However, it was not until I learned of Veterans For Peace that I began to use my military experience for good – giving back to society; to help make young people be aware that there is an alternative to a military culture.
So, I need to prepare a response to that phrase, that starts a conversation of feelings and needs about our community service, their’s and mine and all of us. I need to stop and take this moment as an opportunity to listen and hear each other, so as to understand.
Last week, in a quiet indie bookstore on the north side of Chicago, I saw the latest issue of Rolling Stone resting on a chrome-colored plastic table a few feet from a barista brewing a vanilla latte. A cold October rain fell outside. A friend of mine grabbed the issue and began flipping through it. Knowing that I was a veteran, he said, “Hey, did you see this?” pointing to a news story that seemed more like an ad. It read in part: “This Veterans Day, Bruce Springsteen, Eminem, Rihanna, Dave Grohl, and Metallica will be among numerous artists who will head to the National Mall in Washington D.C. on November 11th for ‘The Concert For Valor,’ an all-star event that will pay tribute to armed services.”
“Concert For Valor? That sounds like something the North Korean government would organize,” I said as I typed Concertforvalor.com into my MacBook Pro looking for more information. The sucking sound from the espresso maker was drowning out a 10-year-old Shins song. As I read, my heart sank, my shoulders slumped.
Special guests at the Concert for Valor were to include: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, and Steven Spielberg. The mission of the concert, according to a press release, was to “raise awareness” of veterans issues and “provide a national stage for ensuring that veterans and their families know that their fellow Americans’ gratitude is genuine.”
Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Michael Mullen were to serve in an advisory capacity, and Starbucks, HBO, and JPMorgan Chase were to pay for it all. “We are honored to play a small role to help raise awareness and support for our service men and women,” said HBO chairman Richard Plepler.
Though I couldn’t quite say why, that Concert for Valor ad felt tired and sad, despite the images of Rihanna singing full-throated into a gold microphone and James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett of Metallica wailing away on their guitars. I had gotten my own share of “thanks” from civilians when I was still a U.S. Army Ranger. Who hadn’t? It had been the endless theme of the post-9/11 era, how thankful other Americans were that we would do… well, what exactly, for them? And here it was again. I couldn’t help wondering: Would veterans somewhere actually feel the gratitude that Starbucks and HBO hoped to convey?
I went home and cooked dinner for my wife and little girl in a semi-depressed state, thinking about that word “valor” which was to be at the heart of the event and wondering about the Hall of Fame line-up of twenty-first century liberalism that was promoting it or planning to turn out to hail it: Rolling Stone, the magazine of Hunter S. Thompson and all things rock and roll; Bruce Springsteen, the billion-dollar working-class hero; Eminem, the white rapper who has sold more records than Elvis; Metallica, the crew who sued Napster and the metal band of choice for so many longhaired, disenfranchised youth of the 1980s and 1990s. They were all going to say “thank you” — again.
Raising (Whose?) Awareness
Later that night, I sat down and Googled “vets honored.” Dozens and dozens of stories promptly queued up on my screen. (Try it yourself.) One of the first items I clicked on was the 50th anniversary celebration in Bangor, Maine, of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the alleged Pearl Harbor of the Vietnam War. Governor Paul LePage had spoken ringingly of the veterans of that war: “These men were just asked to go to a foreign land and protect our freedoms. And they weren’t treated with respect when they returned home. Now it’s time to acknowledge it.”
Vietnam, he insisted, was all about protecting freedom — such a simple and innocent explanation for such a long and horrific war. Lest you forget, the governor and those gathered in Bangor that day were celebrating a still-murky “incident” that touched off a massive American escalation of the war. It was claimed that North Vietnamese patrol boats had twice attacked an American destroyer, though President Lyndon Johnson later suggested that the incident might even have involved shooting at “flying fish” or “whales.” As for protecting freedom in Vietnam, tell the dead Vietnamese in America’s “free fire zones” about that.
No one, however, cared about such details. The point was that eternal “thank you.” If only, I thought, some inquisitive and valorous local reporter had asked the governor, “Treated with disrespect by whom?” And pointed out the mythology behind the idea that American civilians had mistreated GIs returning from Vietnam. (Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the Veterans Administration, which denied returning soldiers proper healthcare, or the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, organizations that weren’t eager to claim the country’s defeated veterans of a disastrous war as their own.) –full essay continued–
“Thank you for your Service”
You are welcome. I am wiser now. There was absolutely nothing gained in my service. In my participation in killing and war, I was not protecting the United States from terrorism or an assault on its liberty. I was part of the expenses of war and the Military Industrial Complex which is draining the United States of its human and financial treasure.
When you pay your taxes, remember that your name is on every bullet, every rocket fired in anger. And your blood is mixed with the blood of the injured and the dying, be they combatants or the innocent.
There is no escape. The fallen fall at our feet.
If you are truly grateful to me, help us change the world from war to peace,from ignorance to enlightenment.
Do not take anything fore granted. Do honest research on the consequences of war. Speak truth to power.
Navy Chaplain, 34 years in service
I was a college grad about to be drafted and wanted the quickest way in and out in order to get the GI Bill. I turned down a commission as an Army artillery officer. They wanted too much time and the job was dangerous. Instead, I joined the Navy. As an enlisted man I was an electrician’s mate aboard two destroyers, USS Brinkely and USS Orleck, in the Pacific during the end of the Vietnam war.
I volunteer at the VA once a week as a chaplain. Initially, I said, “Thank you for your service to our nation”, to every vet. Most were appreciative. A few were not. The VA chaplains told me it was better to say “Thank you for your sacrifice for our nation” because veterans who have sustained moral injury may not be proud but ashamed of what they did in combat. I have started saying this. It seems to resonate better with them.
Whenever I hear those five words, it makes me feel as if the country cares about the sacrifices the armed forces make to keep this nation free.
I honestly do not know what that phrase means. I gather it makes the person saying it feel better, and no further conversation regarding my experience in Vietnam is needed. I recall hearing it for the first time early in the Bush/Cheney regime. It was not long after Bush’s speech declaring that the Vietnam War malaise was gone. For my era, a cold stare, being asked if I killed any women or children, that was a welcome home.
After the First Sergeant at 666 Transportation Company figured out I did not know how to drive, I was reassigned to HHC, 39th Transportation Battalion, 1st Logistics Command, in support of the 101st Airborne Division. I was the Battalion Mail Clerk/Carrier. My duties where picking up mail, orders and documents from 26 Group and Battalion HQ and delivering them to our grunt company’s along the Lao border. I was on Highways One and Nine often. The hardest part of my job were the KIA personal inventories, and making sure an officer sent a “your son or husband died….” letter to parents or wives.
I served my 365 days in Vietnam, did my job, and got back to the world alive to talk about it. That’s not heroic, it’s surviving.
In the late eighties I was drinking, getting into and losing fights, I had depression and anxiety attacks. I went to a few Nam vets rap groups. It was nice to get a hand shake and “Welcome home brother” from a fellow Nam vet.
At some point, in the mid-eighties or early nineties, I believe out of guilt, people who never served began offering a hand shake, a pat on the back, to welcome home aging Nam vets.
After a decade of continuous war, the word hero is tossed around; anyone in uniform is an American hero. But for me, a war hero did something a bit crazy in combat. Something over the top.
To be honest, here in 2015, the hand out, along with a smiling “Thank you for your service” is an overused and hollow gesture. The majority of American’s never wore a uniform owe those that have served in our never ending wars a moral justification for why we fight. From the president, down to city councilors and mayors, they owe us more than “Thanks for your service.” As leaders, they owe us a moral compass putting the art of diplomacy to use over the rush to war.
Today I belong to the Smedley D. Butler Brigade, Chapter 9 of Veterans For Peace.
I was drafted at 18 and was a perfect example of an apolitical, carefree and quite unconcerned young adult. I was well read, really knew my history, knew what war was, but really, it was the other guy who died, it would never be me. In my foolishness I was an immortal. I cared nothing about politics and longed to see what war was about. Hell, I was raised on dozens of Hollywood movies where the bad guys died and the good guys (mostly) lived. And they all died quietly, fell over when hit, and it was done. I went a baby and came back 100 years old, scared of noises, scared of crowds, scared of the dark, especially the dark, hating the government and wanting nothing from it, and angry. Oh the anger, the tendency to go from calm to uncontrollable rage in 15 seconds. How did that happen to me?
When someone says “thank you for your service” I respond “thanks” and then change the subject. But really, I’m angry. Did they just get a little endorphin rush from their good deed? Do they feel noble now having said that. Do they have any idea what I did over there-would they say it to a participant of the My Lai nightmare. How do they know I didn’t do something like that? What they should do is apologize for all the ways the experience warped us. Apologize for the government, with data from 3 wars, utterly failing to help us transition back to the world.
Soon after arriving in VN I reported to the divisional in processing unit. It was situated next to a chopper pad. As I stood outside, a Chinook with a sling under it came in to land. The sling was filled with ponchos. The NCO told the 11 Bravos among us that we were their replacements. The ponchos held bodies. So began my journey.
I often think that there are dozens of Vietnam’s. The VN of the units that first deployed together, the VN of the replacement, the VN army pre-drug and drug. The VN of antiwar attitude, the VN before the attitude ‘outed’. The VN of the delta, the VN of the tea plantations, the VN of triple canopy and steep rugged hills and mountains. The VN of urban, the VN of settled populations. The army of the brigade and division base camps and the army of remote company sized firepbases. The VN of ‘free fire zones’ with all locals removed to large camps. The VN of an armored/mech unit, the VN of an infantry unit; the VN of cold milk and ice cream at dinner and the VN of a canteen of warm water with beans and franks. And all this is important–because no one can know what it was like unless they were in your VN.
Oh, I know, there are overarching aspects we all share. It’s what bonds us together. But the devil is in the details. We all know what a round sounds like as it snaps by your head, but were you hugging the ground, or standing up in an APC?
My M113 carried a floor of M60 ammo boxes and 50 cal boxes. We hoped that they would deaden the blast from a mine. Of course if we are moving quickly and throw a track, and the vehicle rolls, then we die, crushed under 1000 lbs of ammo. Oh wait, let’s solve that by sitting up on the back hatch. Oops, perfect target. A mech/armoured unit never surprised anyone, they could hear us coming kilometers away. When we took fire it was because they were set up and ready for us. And crap they were good soldiers; the NVA 22nd Regiment is the stuff of my nightmares.
After almost 50 years I can still strip down my M60 step by step. I can feel the receiver tucked under my right arm, the belt feeding over my left, and smell the gunpowder. I can remember which C-rats came in the B1A, B2, and B3 units. I can still taste that god awful unchewable Hersey jungle chocolate bar. I remember the smell of burning shit in half a 55 gal drum, a body 2 days old, feel the blast wave of a Chicom, and the ball of plasma from an RPG going off beside me.
For a brief period of time I walked the edge and came through it. And on one dusty late afternoon in dry season, when I was the only one left capable of standing, I did my job.
Fact–the plasma jet from an RPG going off 3 feet from your face looks like a miniature sun and will deafen you for several minutes. Daily questions I ask myself–how did I not get completely ripped up. Why was I fated to get the one-in-a-million ‘you live’ card? How did they miss with the follow-up grenade? Why did I run at them? Why did they fade back? So many questions and no fucking answers.
I am the last of my crew, all have gone from battle, suicide or strange cancers. I keep them alive as they were, as I was.
3rd Plt. Ldr. Alpha 1/7
First Cavalry Division Vietnam 1967/68
“Thank you for your service”
I doubt most folks would have any idea what I did in the military. I could have been a cook, a clerk typist or an MP. Was I in Vietnam, Germany or behind a desk at the Pentagon? They can’t be thanking me for leading a rifle platoon in combat or for loosing 3 guys killed and 2 wounded at Hue during Tet. They don’t know my story and that’s OK.
These five words don’t make me upset. Though they’re often spoken without thought or conviction, I understand that the words are well intended. Sorry, but I guess I’d rather be talking to another Viet vet and hear just two words….”Welcome Home”.
I always feel uncomfortable because acknowledging it with a “Thank you” of my own seems to gloss over the fact that my war was unnecessary, brutal and not something to take national pride in. Sometimes I say nothing and just look at them until they become uncomfortable. Other times I cave and mumble something appreciative. Sometimes, when to occasion seems to call for it, I will say how I feel about being thanked for participating in something so destructive and senseless.
I’m usually shy and introverted, so I seldom start up conversations with someone I’ve never seen before, but sometimes, when I see a soldier or vet in line for a coffee and bagel, I’ll at least say “Hello, where did you serve?” or “Are you on duty?” and I’ll tell them I served in the Army in Vietnam. That usually stops the conversation, I mean, it’s all over. I feel I’m supposed to say something, as I’m courteous to strangers in fatigues, but every time someone thanks me for my service, I cringe. Why? Because I am deeply conflicted, even ashamed at what my ‘service’ actually amounted to.
This happens a lot. It happens every time I visit with a soldier, no matter how brief our time together. I’m convinced they are taught to thank a vet as part of basic training, or exit training, as every single soldier has said it to me. But what’s worse, now I’m hearing it from their spouses too.
I’m trying hard to remember any of my basic or advanced training in Missouri or Oklahoma in 1968. Nope, no sergeant ever said “When you leave the Army, be sure to say ‘Thank you for your service’ to anyone who says ‘Yes, I was in the Army’ (or Navy or Marines or Air Force).
No one in South Vietnam ever said this as part of the introductory scare-the-living-bejesus-out-of-you with spider filament trip lines, and balls of spears swinging out of nowhere if you were stupid enough to not see what’s coming. Nope, no messages of thankfulness there, either. And none when we took occasional mortar rounds from Viet Cong or NVA. Not even when my company was overrun in June 1969.
Nope, nobody said anything like “Thank you for your service.” The stewardesses on the flight home didn’t mention it. No soldiers on my last stateside base pulled me aside and said “Be sure to say ‘Thank you for your service’ if you ever talk with a vet.’ ”
I did receive this message when I got home in 1970: “Hey Baby killer! Hey murderer!” I’ve forgotten the other more descriptive terms hurled at me.
Perhaps this is why, in the 1990s, the Armed Forces decided to take a positive step, and have veterans tell veterans something good, like “Thank you for your service.”
Just to clarify, I can’t find any of my service awards, pins, badges, fatigues or anything else I was allowed to take home with me. They’re just gone. So are most of my memories, except those that put me in a mild state of shock and disbelief, and I’m back on a hill numbered 477 somewhere in South Vietnam. I’ve even lost all the pictures of my buddies sitting on bunkers looking out into the mountains that stretched all the way to Cambodia. So it makes complete sense that I unconsciously stopped telling anyone that I had once ‘served’ in Vietnam.
What did I do? I calculated the range and azimuths, as well as how many powder bags were needed for a 105 Howitzer round to explode on suspected North Vietnamese. I’ve never tried to add up how many rounds per day, times months in Nam, I calculated fire missions on the enemy. Nope, I don’t want to be thanked for that kind of service.
Only later, much later, when learning Hatha yoga, did I start to listen to my instructor as she read from a favorite book of hers by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk. Like a loud Buddhist gong reverberating for days in my head, I realized I could have inadvertently killed one of the world’s most revered Buddhist teachers. I’ve been in a state of regret ever since, though I’ll admit I don’t think about my war time in Vietam, now a distant nightmare awoken only when triggered, perhaps as a Huey helicopter buzzing my little village in Wisconsin, or viewing again “Born on the Fourth of July” or any Hollywood film of what happened over there.
Nope, I’d rather just say “Hello, how are you? Where’d you serve, and can I get that coffee for you?”
Four years in the Army. If I’d truly given of myself a ‘thank-you’ would be welcome. Nothing beats hearing thank-you for a sincere and meaningful gift.
Why did I volunteer for Vietnam? There may have been a touch of nobility or sacrifice among my motives. But mainly an adventurous pulse beat within me then. And I had heard tribal voices. Templates of manhood called like Sirens in the haze. It was my life’s chance to rub shoulders with war.
Mortality was never an issue in my mind. Not my own nor toward anyone else. I wasn’t capable of considering it.
Airborne School had been a hard-earned lark. At Ranger School I was resourceful enough to match up with tough training. I stuck bayonets into straw dummies screaming “Kill, kill, kill!!!” The classmates who really understood were combat veterans.
There were other things I didn’t grasp. I had only a dim awareness of the currents of myth and entitlement that underlie national as well as personal destiny. I remember looking back toward America from an Asian shore wondering if this entire history had happened to teach me something.
After an interesting couple of years as a construction officer in Thailand and Germany I reported in June 1971 to the assignment station at Cam Ranh Bay. I volunteered for combat engineering duty with the 101st Airborne Division. I wound up at a geographical intelligence desk in Saigon. Perhaps it was a miraculous intervention. I do say thank-you for that.
It was my third time living in Southeast Asia. My Dad had been military attaché to Burma during my teen years. Then the paradisiacal posting, for a young man, to seaport construction in rural Thailand. Now to French Indo-China’s capital, the Pearl of the Orient in turmoil.
I liked the local people. I spent many hours after work wandering the streets of Saigon photographing its citizens. I got around town by bus, spent nights printing portraits and city scenes in the darkroom.
Who knows how close VC sympathizers were to me during these escapades. No one ever bothered me except motorcycle-mounted Saigon cowboys stealing cameras. And once a taxi driver pulled a gun over a disputed fare after curfew. I walked away, he didn’t fire.
I figure I had protection, perhaps the protection of innocence. Sometimes you shouldn’t look down.
The first time I reported for night duty officer I tried to load bullets into the .45 cal pistol worn on security patrols. My hands shook with the sudden clarity of what that gun was for. I threw the ammo clip back into the drawer, strapped on the pistol and went out into the night. I never carried a loaded weapon that year.
Yes, it was a year of innocence in the sense of not provoking a bee hive into attack. In other ways, not innocent at all. I tried hard to support the war effort with good intelligence studies. I relished a pat on the back from senior officers. I regarded field grunts as tainted by blood on their hands.
I came home unscathed, untroubled except by those shadows of self-discovery and judgment.
I’ve added my voice and my photographs to the peace movement since 1972. I’ve pondered the sometimes gratuitous gesture “Thank you for your service.” The wars keep on coming.
People want to connect. Many have profound ambivalence, sorrow, confusion. Maybe they feel guilt. Maybe they understand there’s a terrible price for war and its damage to participants on all sides. Maybe they hope to separate the warrior from the war. “Thank you for your service.” Maybe they’re lock-step patriots.
I don’t presume to know the burdens of combat vets any more than the average person who says “Thank you for your service.” But by surviving they may have gained enviable fraternity with their brothers. They deserve a special chance to share in all the fruits of life available to their fellow citizens.
3rd Tanks, 3rd Marines
An award winning poet, Richard sent the following response:
The Five Words
If you tell me, “Thank you for your service,”
and I think you are sincere, I might tell you,
“Don’t ever say that to a veteran,
because if dark particulars come to light
like a stain on porcelain, say, it will spot your heart
and blot the smile from your child’s face forever.
You might not then think of it as service,
but as evil, eternal and far too close.
The way it happens, when bad happens,
it’s fast, you’re slow and become its keeper.
So, please understand, in talking about war,
it’s about killing and merciless cruelty;
nothing more. Now. Given that I may
answer, what would you like to ask or say to me?
It pisses me off when someone says, “Thanks for your service”. What the hell do they know about my service? Saying thank you for your service is the same as having a check out girl at the grocery store wish you a good day. They don’t really care about your day; they just want to get through the moment.
We invaded Vietnam in my youth, a country that posed no threat to us, we gunned down unarmed civilians, we mutilated both alive and dead bodies, destroyed crops and livestock, burnt homes, tortured detainees and I personally witnessed a gang rape. Thank me for my service, why, to make you feel better for supporting wars of corporate profit that I went to on your behalf? If my service was so god damn important why didn’t you show up?
Why did it take twenty years after the Vietnam conflict for you to thank me? Was it because I hid inside my combat induced trauma for the first twenty years screaming for help and we somehow missed each other?
When are you going to serve?
Do you want your children to serve?
What does service mean to you?
Are you thanking me for joining the army and wearing an American uniform, what if I was a total fuckup, incapable of performing basic military skills on a show or go training exercise, will you still thank me?
If you knew that I had killed and raped noncombatants while wearing that uniform would you still thank me for my service? My 100% service connected PTSD riddled buddies are torn with survivors guilt, they are suicidal and self destructive, they need more than a thank you for your service, what have you got for them? Can you see them?
Is it possible you are thanking me to hide your own guilt at not showing up to serve and not caring that the resources we veterans need are being attacked in the congressional budget process? People used to tell me they supported Vietnam, I did not need their support, what I needed was for them to show up and help me dig my foxhole before dark and pull watch later that night.
What if I had caused the death of a grunt while in combat, would you still thank me? What if on the day you thank me it is the anniversary of my best friend’s death, what should I say to you, “thanks for reminding me”?
What if I fragged an asshole officer who made bad decisions that killed my buddies, do you plan to thank me for protecting my buddies or for fragging the officer? I say thank me for both.
I am 68 years old, if I had participated in every American covert and overt military action over the last sixty years, I would have helped overthrow more democratic elected governments than I created. How is this global militarism serving America? Ask Venezuela, Iran, Iraq, Argentina, Vietnam and Cuba. How is this serving America?
Do you feel better after you thank me?
I understand that most people who thank me for my service mean well. They thank me because I ask for it, I wear a flag like a T-shirt or a baseball cap with military markings to show service related pins and badges. They thank me because I draw attention to myself as a veteran when I fly these flags. I am sure most people are just trying to be nice; I am thankful and still somewhat pissed.
Do you care how I feel after you thank me?
What do I usually do when someone thanks me for my service is; I acknowledge them with eye contact, a fake, tight closed mouth smile and a nod, and then I divert my eyes to end the exchange between us. This thirty second exchange can cause me weeks of problems, obsessively reviewing what I should have said instead of just walking away. The anger I opened this essay with happens in my head and fills the days between “thank you’s”. I don’t usually say the thoughts out loud but I wish there was a way to help people understood! The longer I go between people thanking me for my service, the easier my life is.
Those who make knowledgeable informed comments about my unit or observations about my branch of service are welcome. That’s the beginning of a conversation, no offense taken here, a question seeking information is always better than a statement containing inaccurate opinions. Thanking me for my service is a statement of your personal values; a question from you about my service is a sign you care about my personal values.
The myth surrounding the idea that veterans don’t want to talk about their experiences is just that, a myth. The truth is we veterans want to talk about our experiences but most civilians don’t want to hear what we have to say. They are horrified at the reality of some of the things involved in our service. Most Americans are afraid to ask a real question of a veteran. Many times they resort to a nifty one liner, sanitized, void of context.
America, please stop saying thank you for your service to veterans. Ask a simple question, treat us like humans, ask about our service; who did we serve with? What did we do? What was our rank?
Six years in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Southern China, up and down Rt. 1 from top to bottom. Udorn was the main base of operations for Air America’s “road watch” teams (aka forward air controllers) who called in air strikes on south running heavy movement on Rt. 1, saving many thousands of GI lives and limbs. Most vets and civilians knew very little about CIA’s road watch programs or anything else. To this day many vets blame me for every war since Kore–even though clandestine services are greatly needed in war and peace time.
Serving my country was my only priority for more than three decades. That service changed during the administrations under which I served. Just like grunts, I have night terrors, night sweats, a startle-reflex that meds don’t really help.
No one, no GIs, no civilians, ever thanked me. I can’t yet say I’m proud, but a few sincere “Thank you for your service” appreciations would go a very long way.
Got an early out from Viet Nam (B Btry, 1/21 FA, 1st Air Cav) in January 1971. Returned to college in SW Missouri…was Treasurer of the Viet Nam Vets Club on campus. Got married, graduated, moved to St. Louis, began a career and a family.
It was not as simple as that, but life went on. Although I would no longer watch “blood ‘n guts” war movies, I did not suffer from PTSD, and my only (known) health issue was a rotten toe nail that gave me in-grown nail problems until surgically corrected a few years later. In fact, my return to civilian life went quite well. Sure, as some of us vets gathered in “the Union” or in front of the “A Building” during college days to visit, play cards and girl watch, we would get a few looks from passers-by. However, I have no recollection of any adverse comments or difficult situations on campus. And, heck, since I had no access to dental care in ‘Nam, the Army paid for some major dental work, the quality of which was commented on by other dentists in later years. Plus I got to use the GI Bill to help pay for college.
My service in Viet Nam was a source of pride for me, but I did not “wear it on my shoulder.” Nobody ever said “Thank you for your service.” I never even heard of such a statement, but it was no big deal to me. Like millions of war veterans before me, I just came home and returned to life here in the USA. Talked about it some with family and friends through the years, and I answered lots of questions from my daughter, who just wanted to know more about “from whence she came.” I did not join any veterans organization…just kept plugging along. Often wondered about guys with whom I had served – Basic, AIT, Artillery NCO School, Viet Nam. I remembered lots of names, and tried a few times to contact some. Was actually visited by fellow E-5 Don Kohrs, Indiana, in the summer of ’71; and my wife and I exchanged visits with John S. “Smitty” Clinton (of my 105 mm gun section) in Memphis the next year.
The first time I got together with other veterans – to really talk about war, share stories and reach out to each other was an “ad-hoc” gathering in January 1991, in the West County area of St. Louis. Many will remember this as the month that Operation Desert Storm began, under the leadership of General Norman Schwarzkopf. My military pride and fervor had just been renewed as I stayed up all night watching CNN reports of the initial air attacks by US bombers. A business associate and fellow Viet Nam vet, Jim Doyle, knew some other vets and we decided to meet at a local VFW for a few beers…to show our support for the American military and reminisce a bit. One of the guys had served under Schwarzkopf in ‘Nam, and he was certain that Iraq had “bitten off more than they could chew.”
It was said that President Bush had learned the lessons of Viet Nam, so he wanted an overwhelming victory and a quick return home. So, the U.S. and its coalition partners brought the Gulf War to a quick end, and except for daily news of the oil well fires, things seemed to return to normal here on the home front. One difference being discussed on the home front was a big change from Viet Nam – the desire of the nation to proudly welcome home its veterans who served in the Gulf War. There was a huge ticker tape parade in New York City, and the nation celebrated these veterans for months to come.
While this may have been the modern rebirth of the statement “Thank you for your service,” I still did not hear those words directed towards me; but neither did I really worry about it.
Fast forward, only about a year, to Veterans Day 1992. I received a phone call that evening from my brother-in-law, Pat, himself a Viet Nam vet. Since he and my sister had married only 3 years earlier, and we lived in different states, Pat and I were still getting to know each other. So, here it came. In the middle of our conversation he laid it on me, “Don, I just want to say, ’Thank you for your service.’“ Wow! There it was, and it almost knocked my socks off. Pat was a member of a Viet Nam vets organization in his home state of Wisconsin, so he became accustomed to hearing and speaking these words. But me, not only had I hardly heard it previously, I had not even thought to say it myself. Somewhat clumsily, I repeated those words back to him. See, that was not difficult. We concluded our conversation and I reflected on what Pat had said, how easily those words flowed out.
Thinking to myself…”You dumb son of a gun!” Now remember this statement, and use it when in the presence of other veterans.
About that same time my wife and I vacationed in the Shenandoah area of Virginia. I had found and contacted a fellow Viet Nam vet, CJ Call, who lived there. We and our wives visited 2 or 3 times that week, and I said it, “Thank you for your service, CJ.” He, too, had hardly ever heard those words, but we savored them together. A few years later I reconnected with Ken Crayne, Detroit area (finally recalled the spelling of his last name). We exchanged phone calls, and that was that.
In 2002 we moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, which I remembered as the home of another fellow vet… Terry…I just could not recall his last name. Then one day it hit me…Rarick. Yes, there he was in the phone book. Another fun phone call led to visits back and forth, plus a trip to Detroit to see Ken. Terry suffered from PTSD, and Ken had recently lost a foot to diabetes, but we had a great time sharing memories that day. “Thank you for your service” was exchanged a lot, as we met Ken’s family and lunched at a local eatery.
Moving forward another 5 years, and I had a unique opportunity to work 6 months in Ethiopia, with a team of U.S. and Canadian consultants. Two of my fellow consultants are veterans, and Sweet Jesus, there it was again…”Thank you for your service” spoken meaningfully to each other.
Approaching retirement, I found myself even more determined to locate more of “the guys.” A national data base and some educated guesses helped me find Al K and Spencer Y from Basic Training at Ft. Leonard Wood; Joe A, Kelly C (who recently made a vacation tour of Viet Nam),Herb S, David S and Steve D from NCO School at Ft. Sill; and from the First Cav and B 1/21 FA in ‘Nam there was Capt John A (LTC Ret.), Mike D, (CSM Ret.), Marc L, Bill T, Elmer P, Gurney “Mickey” H, Dan “Skip” C, Danny T, Marty C, Dennis P, Rogerio V, Norman A and Jim B—who my wife and I visited in Vermont. Also reconnected with Smitty, and had kept contact with Ken and Terry in Michigan. Need to reconnect with CJ Call in Virginia. Hope to locate “Slim” (Hannibal Carter/Carver?) in North Carolina and the Dan Clark in Florida that several of us want to find.
Helping some of these guys establish contact with each other was especially gratifying. Confident that I correctly identified current addresses of others, I will follow up on their non-response to initial letters. Sadly, a few are deceased. Also sadly, I cannot “zero-in” …YET, on some of the guys, but I will keep trying.
I love you, brothers, and I salute you all. Thank you for your service!
I don’t like it when someone says, ‘Thank you for your service.’ I want to say, ‘Do you know what I did?
On my first ambush, I wept like a child as GIs picked off NVA like paper targets. A month or two later, I had changed. Everyone changed.
There is little room in my heart for patriots. The US has long spied on, destabilized, toppled elected governments. We invade, occupy, exploit, leave our mess, lick our wounds, fete our wounded, tend to forget them. In time its off to the next conflict. For democracy, we’re told. Don’t thank me. Much better: “Welcome home.”
“Thanks for your service” I find that phrase confusing. Fact is I was drafted, but I was actually glad to serve. At first I worked the emergency room at Womack Army Hospital in Fort Bragg, NC.
It was a terrific learning experience. When I was cut orders for Nam I was almost glad. I figured I’d be sent to an Army hospital in the rear. WRONG!!! Just a very few days after landing in Nam I was packing a sixty-five pound rucksack and toting a fully loaded M-16 accompanied by two frags, a smoke grenade, a 200 round bandoleer of M-60 machine gun ammo, four or five canteens of water, and three bandoliers of M-16 magazine ammo, and my most valuable asset, an Aid Bag stuffed with battle bandages , a tube of Albumin (IV blood expander), a host of medicines to include Benadryl, various salves/ointments, Valium and 5 morphine syrettes. Enter the combat medic, “Doc Ski.”
No need to go into war stories. Most civilians will never truly understand what war is all about. Fact is, it’s about dealing death and learning how to handle death and horror and terror. It’s about learning how to accept fear and march out the next day knowing this may well be your last day on earth and nobody, but nobody gives a shit about you except the guys in your outfit, Your brothers.
I’ve had people ask if I was afraid. I tell them I was scared shitless most of the time, but never afraid. Had I been afraid I never would have gone on patrol the next morning. I had too much responsibility toward my men to have time to be afraid. They depended on me. (I owe them still) There’s a vast difference between being scared and being afraid. Most folks won’t understand that, but front line Nam vets know what I’m talking about. I will admit that without a doubt it was the thrill of a lifetime, never to be had again. The firefights, the Charlie Alphas (combat assaults by chopper). Sounds like the talk of a crazy man doesn’t it? It’s not!
I’m somewhat uncomfortable about the “Welcome Home Brother” comment so often given by my Nam brothers. I will always say thanks to them, but in reality I really don’t think I’ve entirely “come home.” I guess I live in the past to a good degree. I always think of the men in my outfit. Every day and every night. I see their youthful faces, the wounded and fallen men. I see the night fighting positions we dug. I see the florescence of the cut fauna in front of our fox holes that would scare the hell out of me. I thought, if I can see it, so can the enemy. Fortunately in a short time the glow would subside and the night would be black as coal.
I still see the dead enemy. Today I realize that they were probably no different than I. Just soldiers fighting for their country. I can still hear the call of the fuck-you-lizards. When I was still a FNG, they scared the hell out of me at night. The smell of the dead. You remember it forever. I see the flashlights the enemy used at night because vitamin deficiencies caused them poor night vision. We threw frags at them rather than fire our M-16’s so as not to give away our positions.
Would I do it all again? Damn right I would. I miss the peaches and pound cake.
The story behind the photo.