Op-Ed: One veteran’s unease when hearing, ‘Thanks for your service.’
When I left the military in 2014 after nearly 12 years of service in the Air Force, a fellow veteran advised me on how to respond when a civilian says, “Thank you for your service.” Such expressions of gratitude, while never wrong, often leave veterans uncertain how to answer. He suggested a very simple reply: “Thank you for your support.”
In the past, I found civilians’ expressions of appreciation humbling, if occasionally awkward. I was proud that I’d served in the great struggle and adventure of my generation. In the years since, though, I’ve become discomfited by the lionization of the military by those who haven’t served. More and more I found I met their appreciation with a growing cynicism. This terse response, “Thank you for your support,” has been my crutch. It gracefully ends the conversation, freeing me from having to explain that my service and their gratitude is a source of consternation for me.
This terse response, “Thank you for your support,” has been my crutch. It gracefully ends the conversation.
Some of my angst, at first, stemmed from the fact that I didn’t feel I really sacrificed enough to earn thanks from strangers. Although I had multiple tours in Iraq, my deployments were shorter and much easier than most others in the armed services. My exposure to danger, though real, was limited to brief moments of hostile action. I never killed, nor were any of my intimately familiar friends killed. The only thing I ever bled was time.
As years have passed, I’ve felt a growing disdain for the Iraq War itself. Veterans of other conflicts, I imagine, can take comfort in knowing they served in the defense of their nation, its allies, and its values — their wars reflected in some way the U.S. heritage of military restraint that dates to the very start of our Republic.
In a letter in late 1775, Benjamin Franklin compared this embryonic nation to a rattlesnake, noting that “she never wounds ’till she has generously given notice” and “She never begins an attack… She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage.” Abraham Lincoln echoed these sentiments in his second inaugural address. Speaking of the Civil War, he said, “All dreaded it, all sought to avoid it” and that the North would only “accept war rather than let [the Union] perish.” This idea, that we go to war only as a last resort, persists in the ethos of America’s military.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case with my war.
The American invasion of Iraq of 2003, which began just months before I commissioned in the military, was baseless, belligerent and detrimental to U.S. interests. It certainly violated the ideals defined by Franklin and Lincoln. We were the aggressor in a conflict that cost our nation thousands of lives, trillions of dollars and international influence. And the result is a region in disarray.
Time revealed that Iraq posed no imminent threat to the U.S. Any suggested connection to the 9/11 attacks was unfounded. Rumors of weapons of mass destruction were completely fictional. My role, however small, in this unprovoked, unjust and unwinnable war has left me uncomfortable accepting praise for my service.
On this Veterans Day, it is a good opportunity to consider the contributions our military personnel have made to the United States. All veterans made sacrifices to the nation and it is right to be grateful for those who serve in our honorable all-volunteer military. Acknowledging the cost paid by service members is a small but admirable action by those who never donned a uniform or carried a weapon.
Yet with every “thank you for your service,” I silently squirm. As I struggle to see my service in Iraq as anything but an abrogation of our national ideals, praise falls as a heavy burden. I feel more deserving of hostility than veneration.
But the insults and animosity never come, only continued fawning from the well-intentioned. Unable to avoid the groundswell of appreciation in the post-9/11 culture, and without better words to make sense of my angst, I will fall back on my stoic response.
“Thank you for your support.”
David Max Korzen is a graduate student in Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University.
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