I had a routine medical exam thing a couple of weeks ago, part of which involved answering a bunch of questions. One of the questions was “Are you a veteran?” I said yes, she said “Thank you for your service,” and went on to the next question.
I didn’t think about it at the time. I mean, it was just a question. Like “Do you smoke?” or “Do you exercise?” But afterwards, that reflexive “Thank you for your service” started to irk me. Because it was reflexive. Like saying ‘Bless you’ when somebody sneezes. It was just an automatic response.
I found myself thinking ‘Why the hell is she thanking me? I didn’t do it for her.’ And because I’m the sort of guy who tends to think too much about too many things, I started to wonder how I’d explain to her why I joined the military. The simple answer is because it was expected of me. Which is true and accurate, but it’s not a complete answer.
I come from a military family. My father had been a Marine in the South Pacific during WWII, most of my uncles had served in the Army in Europe, one served in Korea during that war. I came of military age during the last years of the war in Vietnam. Both of my older brothers were Marines in Vietnam. One was badly wounded physically, the other was badly wounded emotionally.
I protested against that war. I didn’t start protesting until after my brother had been shot up. I came home from school one day to find a Marine officer and chaplain standing outside the door to my home. They’d knocked on the door, but my mother wouldn’t let them into the house. I assumed my brother had been killed. I let them in, and we learned he’d been shot — but because he was in a recon unit, nobody seemed to know where he was when he was shot, how badly he was wounded, or even what parts of his body had been hit. I started protesting while he was still hospitalized; he was hospitalized for nearly a year. I kept protesting when my other brother joined the Marines and went to Vietnam. It angered my father, it angered my brothers, but I did it anyway.
And when I eighteen, I joined the military. Not the Marines — both of my brothers made me promise I wouldn’t join the Marines. I joined the Air Force. I hadn’t gone to a protest since I graduated from high school, but the war in Vietnam was still going on.
So why did I join? Because it was expected of me. Because I expected it of myself. Because my family taught me that the notion of service was important. Not necessarily military service, but service. To the community, to the state, to the nation. I was taught to be thankful for what I was given and that I should give back.
I hated it. I hated having to wear a uniform. I hated having to salute people. I hated following orders. I hated it, but I was a damned good medic. I hated it, but I learned I could do stuff I’d no idea I could do. I hated it, but I learned discipline. Not just to follow rules and orders, but actual discipline — how to control myself in situations where control is critical and necessary. I hated it, but at the same time I felt I was serving a purpose — that in some very small but meaningful way I was giving back. And even though I spent four long years in military harness, I’m aware I didn’t really do that much.
Thinking about all that — and about the woman who’d automatically thanked me for my service — I came to the conclusion that maybe I really did, after all, do it for her. I didn’t do it because of her, but I did it for her. The thing is, somebody has to do it. Regardless of what ‘it’ is, somebody always has to do it. Somebody has to shoulder a firearm and walk post. Somebody has to fight fires. Somebody has to enforce law. Somebody has to pick up trash and repair roads and defend the accused and take photos for your driver’s license and teach your kids and deliver your mail. You don’t know who they are, and they’re not doing it because of you, but they are most definitely doing it for you. They may not do it well, but nevertheless they’re doing it for you
They’ll do it whether you thank them or not. Because it’s expected. Because it’s necessary. And now I realize it was silly and stupid for me to expect that woman to sincerely thank me for my service. It was silly and stupid to be irked by her perfunctory thanks. Because how can she possibly know what my service was like? And I realize now that my thanks to her, when she’d finished her examination, was also perfunctory. Because I’ve no idea what her service is like.
So I’m going to try to be more sincere when I thank people. At least over this holiday season, I’m going to try to genuinely recognize and appreciate the person who serves me my burger, or rings up my groceries at the register, or drops off the package from Amazon. I’m not going to completely succeed, I know that. But damn it, I’m going to try.
And if you’re reading this, thank you very much.
Editorial Note: I thought I’d illustrate this with a photo or two from my days in uniform, but I’ve never bothered to keep any of that stuff. I’m going to check with my ex to see if she kept any of it. It could be worth a giggle.