By Jesse "Doc" Walter
When we meet a veteran, does he or she want to be told, “Thank you for your service?” Over the last 18 years, I have heard many opinions from veterans and non-veterans alike. I’ve received input from mental health professionals, clergy, and other medical personnel about whether to thank a veteran, or active service member, for their service to our country. I have heard mixed reviews about whether to thank a veteran for their service. Each side of the issue has a valid perspective. Some people say that you should say “thank you for your service” to a veteran or current service member. Other people say that you shouldn’t say this.
This difference of opinion resulted in a very thought-provoking reflection that had me evaluate both sides of the issue. Some questions that came up for me were: What might lead a person to recommend not thanking someone for their service? What experiences would a veteran or service member have that would evoke a reaction in either direction—positive or negative—if someone thanked them for their service? Finally, when did this debate originate?
As I reflected on my own experience, I could see both sides. When I was wearing the uniform, I would often feel uncomfortable about running errands after work because if you entered a store, a restaurant or other establishments that were away from a military installation, you would usually stick out. When people noticed you were in uniform, a common experience was people walking up to you and saying “thank you for your service.” It felt great to receive the acknowledgment and it would also remind me of the sacrifice that the uniform represented.
From a different angle, I often felt awkward and hyper conscious; like people were “staring” at me and that I always had to be on my best behavior so that I represented the Army in a positive way. I lived a few miles away from the main post which resulted in fewer military personnel in the community where I lived. As a result, going anywhere would often result in bringing attention to myself. I would constantly be on alert and mindful of my actions. Coming from the perspective of someone who has been deployed (e.g. firefight, IED blast, etc.) outside of mortar attacks, I take great pride in serving this country in uniform and therefore enjoy being thanked for my service.
I have worked with people in the mental health field with veterans and service members for many years and I have heard a variety of providers, people, clergy, civilians, and others state that you should not say “thank you for your service” to a veteran or service member. Four main reasons that I have heard come to mind:
- First, those who believe this say that it could “trigger” someone to have an emotional reaction. The trigger could be connected to a potential adverse or traumatic experience that has impacted their view of military service in a negative way. This could potentially mean that someone would get angry or irritated (e.g. "You don’t know what I've done.”), respond in a way that is reactive (e.g. “You don’t know what I have been through.”) or question your intent (e.g. “Why would you say that?”).
- Second, not everyone that is a veteran served in the same era or time frame so their homecoming experience or public opinion while they were at war, may have been drastically different. For example, a veteran who served in the Vietnam era likely had a negative homecoming experience that consisted of harassment from civilians, protests by the public and propaganda implying disapproval of U.S. military presence overseas.
- Third, the era of service also makes a difference as some veterans volunteered to serve in the military and some were drafted. The difference can be significant depending on what they experienced while deployed. For a veteran who volunteered to serve versus a veteran who did not have a choice, their response, view, and perspective may be significantly different due to having the freedom to make the decision or not. The power of choice could significantly impact the type of response one might receive.
- Fourth, I have heard various medical and mental health providers recommend saying a variety of different sayings such as “thank you for your willingness to serve,” “welcome home,” or “thank you for your sacrifice.” The reason for this ties into the first reason which is to cater your response to the individual based on the era of service or what you know they did while in the military.
Many civilians and veterans alike have good intentions when they say the phrase “thank you for your service.” It is highly likely that their intentions are to acknowledge the sacrifice and selfless service that many veterans and service members have made. Their intention is nothing but positive and coming from a good place. Simply stating a phrase is one of the ways that they are choosing to honor the ones that allow us to live the lifestyles that we do in a free land. Although America is not perfect, it strives to be.
Anecdotally, I have encountered some veterans that state that “Civilians don’t understand and they never will, so why are they thanking me for something they don’t understand?” If a veteran or service member is not able to see past the semantics of someone’s good intentions, I have heard some veterans say that there could be a “stuck point” or significant point of contention due to a potentially traumatic experience or negative event that occurred while deployed or in the military. If a veteran is triggered, has a negative reaction or has an “issue” with someone that says “thank you for your service,” it could be helpful for that person to seek therapy so that they could work toward a place to where they would be able to receive such a statement and see it as an acknowledgment of their service.
Why am I bringing this up today? Well that simple phrase that lets you feel better about yourself can be very traumatic to someone else. When you say “thank you for your service” it could “trigger” those moments that they are struggling with or it could bring up self-loathing for those that feel that they didn’t do enough. I know a guy that is pretty screwed up and he never deployed once, but he was home watching his former schoolmates come back all boxed up. He tried to kill himself three times because he felt inadequate and he cringes every time he hears those “thank yous.”
Note from the editors:
We encourage you to be thoughtful and empathetic to service members experience. We can never know for sure the effect the things we say will have on others. This veterans day be mindful of the sacrifice of our veterans and service members and remember to be respectful of their personal experience.