“Thank You For Your Service.” What Do You Really Mean By That?

Posted on November 10, 2014


Instead of a thank-you, I’d like something different:  I want you to pay attention, stay informed, and get politically involved.


In recent years, more veterans are letting us know that they find it a little off-putting to be thanked for their service. The exact reasons vary, but I have my own, so count me among those who find it awkward at best.

I wonder just what people really mean when they say “Thank you for your service.” Maybe I should start asking. Why are you thanking me for my service? What did it do for you? What does it mean to you? I wonder how many of these well-wishers could even really articulate a solid answer to that question.

Here is what this veteran thinks: “Thank you for your service” is a pretty lame substitute for the public’s failure to be at all engaged, or even a little bit interested, in the political process that has plunged this country… well, 1% of it, anyway… into two horrific, expensive, damaging, and long-running wars. I cannot tell you how increasingly infuriated I became as the two wars dragged on and there was no apparent public outcry during the holidays… as “American Idol” and Britney Spears’ meltdown got more attention than the wars did… when we passed our 1000th casualty… as brain injuries soared into the hundreds of thousands… when we passed the 10-year mark… when we passed the trillion-dollar mark… when this “Global War on Terror” became the longest-running war in US history, and all of it has been pretty much a meaningless bore to a rather detached general public.

In discussing this with civilians from time to time (we have had 13 years to talk about it, after all), I have too often heard the sentiment: “People in the military knew what they were signing up for.” Ah, yes. I heard it again just last week. I take that as a rather uncaring and ignorant dismissal of servicemembers’ concerns, an implication that we were stupid enough to make a choice that you were smart enough not to. Understand this: yes, everyone in the military today volunteered to join, and knew there were risks. But they don’t get to choose how civilian leaders use the military, nor much of anything else beyond that. No, for that, the military depends on the American public to send a clear message to our civilian leaders about what is an acceptable military risk and an acceptable military cost for a clearly definable security benefit to the United States.   That hasn’t happened in a while.

I have said it before: this is why I want a draft anytime we are involved in hostilities. The draft has not been operationally necessary since the inception of the all-volunteer force, but therein lies the problem: the public is not personally invested in any military effort and frankly, it seems to me that most don’t know much about it and just don’t care. We don’t need a draft to operate. We need a draft to make sure the US public does its job as an informed electorate.

However limited and imperfect it might be, a draft would put EVERYONE at some personal risk. Yourself, your kid, your spouse or sibling might see their number come up, and even if they did not end up actually in a war zone, let me tell you, even peacetime military service can be pretty damned inconvenient. No sleeping in. No calling in sick. No quitting. Required physical training at the crack of dawn, rain, shine, heat waves or snow. Separation from family and friends. You don’t even get to choose your clothes or living quarters or specific job, much less your duty station. Let the general public be faced with this, and you can bet there would be a lot more public scrutiny of our politicians’ decisions. What is important enough for you to be willing to go to war? Or to send your kid to war? When it might be you whose choice to not serve is taken away, you who are inconvenienced or at risk, the bar is suddenly much higher than it was than when it was just a bunch of volunteers who “knew what they were signing up for.”

I want the bar to be the same for me as it would be for you, or your kid.  But it isn’t, because you figure I knew what I was signing up for and chose it, and in your mind, that justifies whatever happens.

Little wonder that the military and the civilian population have been increasingly disconnected from each other, even before 9/11 and the ensuing wars. The divide is there because we are an all-volunteer force.  Because 99% of our population does not serve, and has no worries about being called up, despite 13 years of constant war.  It is completely their choice to not get involved, and all too often that means they choose to not even be interested or informed.  Saying “Thank you for your service” doesn’t bridge that divide.


Here are three other views from veterans:

Camillo Mac Bica, “Don’t Thank Me For My Service.”

Alex Horton, “Help Veterans By Taking Them Off the Pedestal.

Ky Hunter, “Stop Thanking Veterans for Their Service.”