When a stranger says "Thank you for your service" to a veteran, it's often an awkward — and short — conversation. For some veterans, being thanked for their job seems odd: I didn't really do much, some may think. You're thanking me for something you don't even understand is another thought that may come to mind.
When I hear it, I cordially say thank you back. In my opinion, it takes some guts for a random stranger to approach and express that appreciation. But I sometimes think it may be the wrong sentiment. Sadly, "Thank you for your service" has become the end of the conversation, not the beginning. It's a phrase that has become a punchline in military circles — thought as empty and overused — and takes away from what could be a chance for civilians to ask questions and really understand what troops have done.
Air Force veteran Elizabeth O'Herrin responds in a similar way, saying "my pleasure" in response. But was it really? As she explains in a wonderful essay at the website Medium, the exchange of pleasantries can take a quick turn:
Upon returning home, being thanked for my service became something I found awkward. My experience was not that traumatic. It was not that dangerous. It didn't truly feel like a sacrifice. Other people certainly deserved a thank you, but not me. Not when I remembered leaning over a guy who had just lost his leg, scrubbing blood from his hands, attempting a conversation to soothe him when he was incoherent, doped up on morphine. Digging through his bag to find his Purple Heart because he became panicked when he couldn't remember where they put it. I dug through the normal shit he packed in his bag earlier that day, back when he had two legs, like bubble gum. "Thank you for your service."
I didn't deserve much thanks for anything.
O'Herrin, who helped fuse bombs on jets that were later dropped on the bad guys, is and should be proud of her service. Like many of the post-9/11 military generation, she volunteered at a time of war and performed an essential job that most certainly resulted in saved lives on the ground.
In her essay, she recalls seeing a wounded veteran on the D.C. metro, and making eye contact with his mother. She struggles in that moment with wanting to tell the mother — who has no idea she is a veteran — that she understands at least some of what she's going through. She wants to empathize with her, and tell her that she feels her pain.
"But I knew I couldn't say something without sounding vapid and empty, swiping at some semblance of shared experience and missing entirely," O'Herrin writes.
In this experience, she learns an important point, and one that perhaps all veterans should take to heart. While "thank you for your service" can sometimes sound like an empty phrase, just remember in that time before you heard it, that person had to work up the courage to approach when they were not obligated in any way. Far from the awful homecoming of our Vietnam veterans who were sometimes cursed by those who never served, this generation of veterans should accept that phrase and embrace it.
"They wanted me to know they felt something, and chose to say it," O'Herrin writes in her closing. "And I feel grateful for their words."