One Simple Phrase Can Make Veterans Uncomfortable

“Thank you for your service.”

A complete stranger burst into tears and hugged me at an airport once.

I was in uniform with a crew of six others in the boarding queue, about to embark on the first leg of our journey to the Middle East. A middle-aged woman standing nearby overheard us talking vaguely about what we were up to (OPSEC, people), and she became overwhelmed with emotion. She uttered a heartfelt, “Thank you for your service,” then choked out, “We LOVE YOU!” as she wrapped her arms around me and dissolved into complete hysterics.

I felt distinctly awkward.

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that this journey was supposed to be a relatively short, non-combative deployment. I was operating under the greater wing of Air Force Public Affairs, after all. Like most of the general population, this woman had no concept for the broad scope of our armed forces and the infinitely variable deployment conditions based on location, branch of service, rank, and career field.

All she knew was that this plucky band of camo-clad Americans before her were en route to sacrifice for her and her family, and she was beside herself as a result. I’m sure she envisioned me mere moments away from dodging bullets and mortars, carrying one of my injured comrades over my shoulder while peppering the distance with suppressing fire. I murmured my thanks, assured her everything was going to be okay, and went on my way.

No matter the level of sincerity, I’m certain many veterans will agree that this statement can cause some discomfort.

Every veteran has heard the words “thanks for your service” with varying degrees of enthusiasm: sometimes passionately (like the hugging stranger) and other times in an almost obligatory, off-handed fashion. No matter the level of sincerity, I’m certain many veterans will agree that this statement can cause some discomfort. Though well-intentioned, it can often come off as self-serving. It can stir up horrible memories. It may even make some vets downright angry. In a piece publish by the New York Times entitled “Please Don’t Thank Me For My Service,” a former Green Beret explains:

To some recent vets — by no stretch all of them — the thanks comes across as shallow, disconnected, a reflexive offering from people who, while meaning well, have no clue what soldiers did over there or what motivated them to go, and who would never have gone themselves nor sent their own sons and daughters. To these vets, thanking soldiers for their service symbolizes the ease of sending a volunteer army to wage war at great distance — physically, spiritually, economically.

We appreciate the gratitude, but don’t need or expect it — we simply chose to serve. Many have taken to Twitter to explain:

…while others have called for action in lieu of words:

Non-veteran/service members may be reading this and feeling guilty for potentially causing disquiet or worse by what they have said in the past. Please understand, that isn’t the intent of this article. If you’ve said thanks (and meant it) you’re good. That said, perhaps reading this will provoke more thoughtful and purposeful words and actions in the future.

Regardless, for those of us on the receiving end of these statements, there should be some kind of professional response that is neither arrogant nor dismissive. You will likely hear “thanks for your service” many times throughout your transition and reintegration, particularly as you interview for and begin your post-service career.

When I worked at USAF Basic Military Training, I witnessed countless trainees and recently-graduated Airmen uncomfortably attempt to reply to the public’s demonstrations of appreciation. Their uneasiness was surely exacerbated by the feeling that they hadn’t done much in the way of sacrificing for their country yet, aside from giving up 8 weeks of their lives to attend Basic. In my pre-graduation-parade briefing, I would advise these soon-to-be Airmen to reply with the following:

“My pleasure. Thanks for your support.”

That is a simple, humble way to acknowledge and validate this expression of gratitude, even if the issuer doesn’t truly “get it.” Even when it is accompanied by a fervent embrace from a sobbing stranger. If you are in need of a quicker response, “My pleasure,” will do.

Professionals, how do you respond to, “Thanks for your service?” Let us know in the comments below, or on our Facebook page.

3 thoughts on “One Simple Phrase Can Make Veterans Uncomfortable”

  1. Anytime I interfaced with the general public – which was quite often in my job – I got thanked many, MANY times for my service. While I didn’t want to diminish anyone’s support of our military, it was always a bit uncomfortable for many of the reasons you mention (although technically a combatant, I was never exposed to direct enemy fire, only some interest fire — random rockets and mortars that were never close enough to count). I usually would say, “It’s my pleasure to serve. Thank YOU for your support.”

    • Last weekend, while using my 10% vet discount at Lowe’s the clerk at the checkout counter thanked me for my service. It definitely made me feel a bit weird — the 10% is thanks enough. I just said “oh hey, no problem!” and went about my day.

  2. In the span of the short moment it takes to say to a vet “Thank you for your service” there is not enough time to explore how that vet felt or feels about his/her time in the military. Vets, when you hear that thank you, just say “Thank you” or “You’re welcome” as anyone would in the cilivian world too. As a civilian, we’ve said thanks to our vets many times…and we sincerely mean it…AND we realize that not all personnel go into battle zones. But the fact that they signed up to live the military life means a lot to us personally. So that’s why we thank them.

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