The phrase ‘thank you for your service’ started to be used in the late ‘90s. It became even more popular in recognition of the heroism on the part of firefighters, police, and first responders in the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11th and the War on Terror that followed. The saying is commonly used today to greet all veterans and active-duty soldiers as well as politicians and first responders. It is the “phrase du jour” for Veterans Day (originally Armistice Day) honoring those who served in the military, and Memorial Day (originally Decoration Day) honoring those who made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of their country.
But some veterans, especially Vietnam veterans, feel that the phrase is overused, and may even find it offensive. These men interpret the words as a meaningless sentiment such as “have a nice day” and react with a quiet, modest “thank you” all the while thinking you have no true understanding for the meaning of those words.
If you were a combat veteran in Vietnam, humped the boonies for a year, and placed your life on the line every day in service to your country, you often believe your actions deserve more respect than what is so commonly communicated by thank you for your service. Many Vietnam veterans believe that saying those words alleviates the civilian guilt for not having served. A common belief within my group is while I was humping the jungle and eating C-rations in that God-forsaken country, you were eating french fries in the food court at the mall.
An Uneasy Thanks
According to a Cohen Veterans Network poll commissioned in November 2019, 49% of veterans don’t actually like to be thanked and are uneasy with the expression thank you for your service.
Here is a quote from my book with permission given by Robert Flournoy from a Facebook post, Reflections of an Artillery Forward Observer with an Air Cav Rifle Company:
“Many of us arrived in Oakland 12 hours after leaving a fire base, some after walking point on a patrol, still wearing the red dirt of that duty, and were on the streets in civies a few hours later with some travel pay to make their way back to Ohio, Alabama, or New Jersey. And when the hugs and tears of our families were done with, we would look around, somewhat bewildered, with a head full of “what now?” Ensuing nights filled the mind with sounds of popping flares, and hammering of an M-60, the constant boom of artillery and the whop whop whop of Hueys coming and going, left us dazed and confused to have left all that behind so suddenly. Many of us sank into silence, most tried to explain our experience to uncomprehending parents, and spouses. So many sought the solace of fellow vets at the local VFW or Legion Hall, usually accompanied by liquor which too frequently led to loud, aggressive behavior. How many of us wanted to go back? Back to the jungle, to the fire bases that we hated, but where likeminded men with singular purpose treated us like brothers, silent respect and understanding hanging over us like a warm blanket. Our homecomings were, all too frequently, the beginnings of frustration and despair.
Yet, most just moved on, putting it all behind us. Regardless of how we handled the homecoming, there was never a welcome home feeling from our country much less from the people who never served. We didn’t look for it, expect it, or even think about it. It was a non-issue. So, Vietnam vets became an obscurity in the landscape of America, an awkward presence that most vets acknowledged with their own silence. But, decades later, when old ghosts started creeping out of their closets, and the wisdom of age made its way into their reflections, combat veterans from the Vietnam war began remembering their experiences in softer toned colors, instead of the garish bright reds and oranges that they brought home with them. A kind gentleness emerged as they sought their brothers from long ago. The greeting “welcome home” emerged not as a resentful “we never got a proper welcome”, but simply as a soft nod of the head to those who made it back so long ago. Two simple words that belong exclusively to them and their kin; brothers who know – as only they can know. Those men own the words, another right shoulder patch seen only by those who also wear one there.”
Vietnam vets are a special breed. We come in many shapes and colors. You will notice more and more of us these days as Vietnam veterans begin to walk in the boots of their WWII and Korean brothers. Some proudly wear ball caps denoting the unit in which they served with pins showing their decorations. Our hair is going grey. We have wrinkles on our faces, and some suffer from the ravages of age, battle wounds, PTSD, the scourge of toxic burning and Agent Orange. But as our numbers gradually decrease, just as our brothers in previous wars have faded, we ask only for a few kind words of acknowledgement that we served to protect the freedoms and life you now enjoy.
When you meet us, I encourage you to greet us with a phrase that shows you truly care and have a deeper understanding of those of us who served in our war. There is nothing wrong with saying thank you for your service and it is sincerely appreciated by most veterans. But if you want to tell us that you honor our sacrifice, bring lumps to our throats and tears to our eyes, say Welcome Home and watch the reaction. It’s a gamechanger.
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