This time of year folks will say to me, and to countless thousands of other military veterans: “Thank you for your service.” I will hear it in person, by email, text, through social media. It is Veterans Day. The same also happens in spades on Memorial Day.
I have a favorite shirt, which was custom embroidered in Vietnam. It is colorfully threaded with a map of the country. There’s a stitched label for the town of Chu Lai where I was stationed. It is lettered in cursive with my division name—“Americal”—and the dates when I served: 1970 to ’71. It is adorned with a yellow dragon, Vietnamese symbol for strength and progress and masculinity. I have to be mindful when I where it outside the house, because it too will provoke, unsolicited, this old saw.
When confronted by “thank you for your service,” I usually respond, somewhat politely, “thanks for your support.” Frankly, I don’t know exactly what I mean by that. But I figure it’s okay, since I also don’t know exactly what their platitude means. I suspect they don’t either.
Military service in Vietnam—or pick your favorite war, we’ve got a bunch to choose from—means a whole lot of different things to a whole lot of veterans of different eras, places, and circumstances. I was drafted for two years. In and then out. That was then, and this is now. End of story. I moved on. But others joined for four years or more. Some stayed for a very long time—20 or 30 years. And many veterans have not moved on in their life, as I claim to have.
Some vets are haunted by debilitating depression and anxiety, tormented by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Many surviving Vietnam vets suffer chronic consequences from exposure to Agent Orange, the toxic defoliant that the US served up throughout the Vietnamese countryside like crop dusting in the corn belt. There’s an abundance of Purple Heart recipients—350,000 Vietnam veterans received this medal—who are none the worse today for their wartime troubles. But there are plenty who remain forever wounded warriors. Broken in spirit as well as body.
What does “thank you for your service” mean to them? And, of course, how do you thank the dead?
When Americans hail our fallen military men and women, I sense it’s sometimes mere lip service to the “honored dead.” We’re thinking, saying, and believing all those who died in the Armed Forces did so ensuring America remains the land of the free. Except that freedom and justice does not reign for all in our country. And in many cases, those who died in recent wars, did so not in defense of our freedom, but in furthering the dubious goals of narrow-minded, self-serving politicians and industrialists, who themselves, remained far removed from the horrors of war.
When I hear my fellow citizens salute soldiers, sailors and air-men and women who died for a cause, I wince because the cause was often folly, not freedom. As a survivor of the Vietnam War, I know this first hand. So do my brothers and sisters still standing. And so too did those sadly departed.
I honor the fallen daily, with every breath I take. It is not something I need to think about or have a holiday weekend to remind me. There but for the grace of something or someone, go I. But the job of defending freedom and justice in our country—for all–continues every day, right here, within our borders, in our hometowns, among our neighbors, friends and family. Bowing my head on Veterans Day or Memorial Day, doesn’t really make any difference. The way I live and vote and communicate 365 days per year does.
By all means, lets all pay homage to our military veterans—living and dead—today. But make no mistake: too many of the warriors we honor and mourn were sent to their fates unnecessarily. Too many of those wounded in service suffer daily for all the wrong reasons. Too many of the dead died for reasons that were badly reasoned.
The best thing you or I can do to acknowledge their sacrifice—and the sorrow, tragedy and pain their family and friends live with every day—is to ensure against future recklessness. We must fight for equal rights for all Americans at home with the same vigor and resources we typically employ in foreign wars. Maybe someday soon we will realize the elusive ideals of freedom and justice for all that still remain beyond our grasp.
So if you want to thank me for my service, I will accept this old chestnut with as much grace as I can muster on behalf of all my brother and sister vets; on behalf of those who made it home and those that did not. And for those who still bear the wounds of war today. And when I say back to you “thanks for your support,” know that, silently, I’m hoping that we each do everything possible to figure out ways to stop doing this warfare thing anymore. That would be ideal service.
So what, then, should you say to a veteran, today or any other time?
Try “welcome home!” Then let me know if that doesn’t make their day. I know it would for me.