This op-ed originally was published in the Oct. 28 edition of the Winston-Salem Journal.
I cannot count the number of times someone has told me, "Thank you for your service," nor how many times I was embarrassed yet grateful to hear it.
I am usually in military uniform when the thank-you comes, so I try to handle it gracefully. I do not welcome it, but it always seems sincere, so I cannot merely swat it away.
"Thank you for your service" is our society's hard-learned lesson that Americans treated the veterans of the unpopular Vietnam War horribly. Many criticize the line as a shallow recognition by people who have not served, but that itself is a superficial judgment.
More than one veteran has told me that he or she was spit on or cursed at when in uniform in the early 1970s. In Ken Burns' recent PBS series "The Vietnam War," a woman who vigorously protested the war admits, with genuine sincerity and emotion, that she and her fellow protesters were wrong in how they treated veterans. Only a few American service members actually killed babies and deserved that popular 1960s sobriquet.
I understand why she protested, but I also revere those who served. Had I been of age at the time, and brave enough, I might have enlisted and fought and then, if I made it back in one piece, joined the protests.
War is not started by military men and women, but by politicians. The wrath of ill-begotten wars belongs at their doorstep, not at the feet of brave 19-year-old infantrymen just doing what their country has asked.
"Hate the war, not the warrior" was the fashionable, and correct, recognition by protesters of the Iraq War. I have never seen any veteran spat on or cursed because of that or the Afghanistan war. Maybe protesters know that some veterans share some of their sentiments.
A new movie, appropriately titled "Thank You for Your Service," is out this month and lays bare why the veteran is held in almost universal esteem now regardless of one's positions on war. The movie tells the story of Iraq combat veterans who return home only to suffer from their experiences. Those we ask to serve in these wars represent less than one percent of our population but bear 100 percent of the physical and mental pain and turmoil that war unleashes on its prey.
A few weeks ago I was in Washington, D.C., for training as a military judge. One day I was thanked three different times by passers-by as I walked from Union Station across the street to the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judicial Center.
It was just a few days after the end of the PBS series. I told another officer that maybe there was a connection. "No," she said, "I get that all the time here. They appreciate us here." I was reminded of the time that she and I, and our old unit, were having lunch, in uniform, at a diner one spring day in Oklahoma City and kept getting interrupted by older men and women thanking us for our service.
My embarrassment at being thanked for my service comes from knowing that, even though I have twice deployed to the Middle East in support of the two most recent wars, I have not suffered the way people think veterans suffer when they are thanking them for their service. Not every place I went on deployment was safe, but no one shot at me, and I did not see colleagues killed or maimed in battle. Those who should be thanked for their service are in a class by themselves.
Sometimes I'll wave people off and tell them who they should really thank, or sometimes I'll just say thank you because I appreciate their sentiment. I know that I am just a vessel for people to acknowledge an obvious truth – that others, for whatever reason, have stepped up to do what their country needs done.
Then there are those who have family who have served or who served themselves. Their comments touch deeply.
The most blessed thank you I ever received was in the pre-dawn hours in October 2006 when my unit got off a plane in Bangor, Maine. Hundreds of our sailors in camouflage fatigues stumbled into the terminal, groggy from a 20-hour flight after a six-month deployment to Kuwait and Iraq. We were greeted by older veterans waving American and Navy flags. They welcomed us home and thanked us for our service.
When I learned that some had done their own tours in Vietnam, I was mortified that they were thanking me, and I was overcome with emotion. I was not fit to tie their combat bootstraps and could not comprehend their actions. "They were thanking us," I told a friend, choked up.
They were just giving us the 'thank you' they had never received.
Chris Geis is a local lawyer and holds the rank of commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve.
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