It’s happened more times than I can count. I’m standing in any one of a dozen places- in line at a Starbucks, an airport, the gas station- and I’m waiting in front of a man or woman in uniform with patches I can’t identify.
In one specific instance, I’m in line at the bank. Immediately, my brain starts clicking- He’s a veteran. I wonder if I should say something polite or give him a quick thanks. The inclination to offer my gratitude is strong and I’d like to find a way to act upon it.
I wait another minute or two and see if the universe will draw his attention to me and initiate some kind of eye contact. If I can read his response, I’ll know whether or not he’s in the mood to be bothered.
As if he heard my thoughts aloud, he looks up from his phone, glances in quick surveillance of the room, and I catch his attention briefly. He politely nods, smiles, and turns his focus back to his phone.
That’s not enough encouragement for me to say anything directly, so I just wait. It’s a long line; I’ve got time. We both take a step or two forward, and he makes a friendly joke to me over my shoulder about fossilizing in this line before we get our turns. I give a genuine laugh at his joke, reply back with something pithy, and think about what I want to say next. Ok, so he’s in a chatty mood. Be deliberate and benign but be brief. Don’t annoy him.
Suddenly I realize my heart is pounding so loudly I can hear it in my ears. All I want to do is say thank you to a stranger; I’m in a cold sweat.
“Are you on your way to work?” I ask casually and earnestly.
“Yeah. I work at the military base.” He responds.
“That’s cool. What do you do?” I inquire. This is going well.
“I’m home from deployment actually. I just got back from nine months in Iraq."
The alarms are all going off in my head now because I’m registering that he’s gotten back from a hostile environment. Based on the information I’ve gathered up to this point, he might not want to discuss the experience further. I don’t want to be impertinent or rude.
“Oh wow. Well, welcome home!” I say with a smile resisting any urge to embellish or lather. Dang. Deployment. Iraq. This is not the place to discuss this in detail with a stranger. Let it go.
“Thank you.” He replies and we leave it at that.
The next few moments feel awkward but they pass. My heart rate returns to normal and once again we’re just two people standing in a never-ending line. As we approach the front, he makes another joke about finally getting our turns. We both laugh in amusement, and then I’m called to the desk as “Next!”
“You’re up!” he says with a smile.
“Finally! Good luck and thank you for your service.” I reply with eye contact and a sincere smile so he knows I’m not being trendy.
“It’s nothing.” He says and sounds so official he might have said it a hundred times. As I walk to the counter I am grateful I was able to say something.
Grateful. Why am I grateful I was able to thank him? What is that about? What is this urge we feel to make sure veterans know we’re appreciative toward them for their service to their country? What is this compulsion to say anything at all? And why is the compulsion juxtaposed against palpable anxiety that we might be bothering or even offending them for mentioning the subject?
Firstly, I am grateful. Enough interactions with veterans over the years have painted a vivid picture for me regarding the great lengths, pains, and sacrifices these men and women have experienced in service to their country. It is a type of service I’ll never provide and sacrifices with which I can only try and empathize.
I’m not only referring to the extreme sacrifices like loss of friends, limbs, peace of mind, or living on the edge in life or death situations almost around the clock. I’m talking about the small, beautiful little treasures we take for granted every day. I’m talking about tucking our kids in bed at night, every night; being able to spend time with them each day; witnessing their births, their first steps, and their performances in school plays. I’m talking about enjoying the company of our spouses; enjoying peaceful dreams in a comfy bed; showering daily; walking comfortably down the street, or eating a home cooked meal.
I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating my freedom and I’ve come to the realization that the greatest sacrifice our men and women in uniform make is trading their own freedom for ours. They subject themselves to whatever is deemed necessary by someone else, and in exchange they ask for nothing from us. We feel we must express our gratitude to them because we know deep down, instinctively, it is the right thing to do. They’ve earned it.
I know why I’m grateful, then why the anxiety? We are anxious to thank them because we are sensitive to the fact that they may not want to be thanked. What if we upset them or bother them? What if we stir up painful memories from the past? What if they just want to be left alone? In each scenario, a certain amount of body language needs to be read.
Sometimes it’s not the time or place and you just have to send your well wishes into the cosmos, hoping it finds them on a subconscious level. Sometimes we misread them and say something anyway and it isn’t well received. It happens. There are a wide variety of things veterans might hear when you say, “Thank you for your service.”
If our thanks aren’t received like we had hoped, we should be gracious anyway. Whatever way they respond, is how they respond. We didn’t say “thank you” for our own gratification anyway. Let’s face it: nobody handles gratitude well. While 88% of people who receive gratitude feel valued, 77% of them also feel embarrassment.  After all, what else can one say after “You’re welcome” “It was nothing” “No problem”? The awkward silence inevitably follows, and we all sort of wait for the moment to pass.
So, is that it? Does “Thank you for your service” cover it? Does it adequately convey to them the extent of our gratitude for their sacrifices and our infinite respect? Probably not. But then again, those kinds of indications could take a lifetime of friendship to express, if they can be adequately communicated at all.
So that’s what I mean when I say thank you. I hope that’s what anyone who thanks a veteran really means. We mean “Thank you for all you’ve done. You’re welcome home, you’re welcome here, and you can count on me to be here for you if you need anything.”