I’ve been meaning to write this particular post for quite some time, but I have had a hard time finding the line between sharing my sentiments on the subject and possibly making people think twice about sharing an “attitude of gratitude” towards Active/Reserve/Veteran service members. However, I keep reading the articles on veteran suicide rates (22 a DAY), I personally know my own struggles as a veteran, and I know that the majority of Americans just want to express thanks for something they are unwilling or unable to do. I feel the same way about EMT’s and other “jobs” out there that we desperately need people to rise up and do; but most people would not or could not do them. Teachers fall into this category for me was well. There is no end to their deployment…
Anyway, I have been out of the Army now for 6 years. It doesn’t feel like 6 years. It doesn’t even feel sometimes like I am out – maybe I am just taking really extended leave… I don’t know what my brain is doing, but I do know that it feels like yesterday that I was putting on a uniform everyday for work instead of residing in my pajamas for the majority of my days. Maybe it is because I have been unable to find a new job to throw myself into, or maybe it’s that what I did in the military had deep meaning for me and I will never let it go as something I once “did” for a living. It will always be there. I will always on some level be an American Soldier. Maybe it’s because it’s the only identity I have ever had that I could be proud of, or that others could easily identify and understand.
In recent months I have had to introduce myself to countless new people. Mostly it’s “Hi I’m Carrie (Kathryn) and I am an alcoholic.” Once we get past that introduction (that I am totally sick of saying), there is a lull, and the inevitable question of “what do you do?” Honestly, right now I don’t do anything. So my responses range from, “I’m unemployed right now” to “I’m in-between careers” or I pretend that my writing (that I have been ignoring) is what I do. “I write.” All the responses have follow up questions and eventually we get to the fact that I am an Army Veteran. Then the response 99% of the time is “Thank you for your service!”
Now, in normal conversations, “You’re welcome” should suffice as a response, but some people won’t let it go and this post is asking you to just let it go if our conversation is never going further than this exchange. Here is MY reason why…
When people in the grocery store or yoga class or an AA meeting thank me for my service it is very easy for me to muster up the pride I have in what I did to say, “You are welcome!” It is the veterans equivalent of passing someone in the hall and saying, “Hi how are you today? and the expected response is “Good” or “Fine” and that’s it. You don’t really want to know the persons life story, or want them to tell you about the cat vomit in their shoe that morning. It is a polite exchange we participate in. How are you? Fine. Thank you for your service. You are welcome.
When you take it beyond this exchange, I feel awkward. How much do you want to know? Why are you still talking to me? What is it exactly you expect me to say? Gah!
I sort of bring this on myself because I still wear my SETAF t-shirts, and my “Been there, done that” T-shirt from Afghanistan. I do invite conversation, and being the chatty person I am – I will talk to you for hours on end if you let me. I enjoy talking about my military service (though I do not enjoy discussing the politics around it in the grocery store check-out). For instance, someone sees one of my military themed shirts and asks, “Were you in the service?” Yes. “Thank you!” You’re welcome! “(insert President you love to hate here) really fucked you guys over.” Silence. Then to break an uncomfortable silence I usually come up with something to change the subject. “Uh… I see you are buying potatoes.”
Seriously, I don’t care about your political views Bush/Obama – whoever is next… this is not a grocery store/gas pump/fast food line conversation to have. I also don’t care about your cousin/son/daughter/parent/friend who is also in the Army. I don’t know them. Jews and black people have this problem too – Oh I have a black friend, his name is Tony. Do you know him? No. Stop it. Again, small talk is meant to be easy. Please keep it that way. Weather. Weather is good. “Thank you for your service!” “You are welcome!” “Great/shitty/warm/cold weather we are having now right!?” Yeah.
Let me tell you about the political beliefs of service members. We are under oath to serve whatever jackass we vote into office. It doesn’t matter if we voted for them or not. It doesn’t matter if we like them or agree with them. It doesn’t matter if they are ethical or corrupt. It doesn’t matter what their intentions or purposes are for sending us to war, closing bases, cutting benefits, or increasing our COLA rates. Do we have opinions on these things? Yes! Do we want to share those opinions with you while we are buying Slim Jims and cigarettes at the gas station? No. Not really.
Then there are the underlying issues with these conversations and I only recently realized why these interactions make ME so uncomfortable. While in rehab one of the ladies I was with thanked me for my service; this was different though as we were forced to live together for 31 days and its all about getting to know one another and dealing with scary feelings and stuff. So when the conversation went beyond Thank you, you are welcome; it took a surprising turn and I have wanted to write about it since it happened.
First of all when she thanked me for my service she adjusted her body language. She squared herself up, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Thank you so much for your service, you guys do so much that we can’t even begin to understand.” Well shit. “You are welcome!” Then she went and sat down. A few minutes later she said, “Can I ask you a question?” I said yes, and the resulting conversation surprised both of us. She said, “Do you enjoy when people thank you for your service? I mean, should we do that?” That is one question I have never been asked so I had never had to think about the answer. What came out for my answer surprised me. I started to cry. Now – understand I was in rehab, and crying is a daily event and can be brought on by a sneeze. However, the tears in this case were relief, and guilt. Odd right? Relief and guilt.
Relief because someone asked me how I felt about it. Like, not just that I am supposed to be grateful that you are grateful. I had never really thought about it beyond that. I hear “Thank you for your service” and it means as much to me as “How are you?” because the response is automatic. I will say you are welcome, because that is what I am supposed to say. I can’t say that I don’t feel like I deserve to be thanked. I can’t respond with, “Well I didn’t really do anything.” I am not at liberty to burst some kind persons patriotic sentiment with sprinkles of survivors guilt. People don’t REALLY want to know how I feel, they are just doing what they are supposed to do so they aren’t labeled like their parents were when troops came home from Vietnam and got spit on. While I have survivors guilt – our country has a collective, we treat our service members like shit; so I’ll make sure to let them know that I am not like that and I will say thank you guilt. I will just say it – most of the “thank yous” do not feel all that genuine and the follow up questions/conversations usually turn to how that person is dealing with the wars/politics whatever and isn’t about me or my service at all. So when someone genuinely asked me questions about how I felt when someone thanks me; well I was overwhelmed by it.
The guilt comes when the conversation gets to the inevitable “Did you go over there?” Yes. Twice. Then people pity me. Oh you poor thing! TWICE? Yes. Twice. What I am thinking is, “However, a friend died on his FIFTH deployment right before he was supposed to come home to his wife and five kids. Have a nice day!” or “Yeah, Twice. One kid though only went once, he was 18. I had to cover his Fallen Comrade Ceremony/Military Funeral. He had only been in the Army for 6 months. He looked so peaceful there in his coffin all dolled up in his uniform with all those medals pinned to his barely haired chest.” So yeah. I feel pretty fucking lucky. I feel like I didn’t do enough. I feel like I don’t deserve to be home in my pajamas. I feel like I had it easy (which I did). I feel like I shouldn’t even mention my deployments because I am okay. I am alive. I am still here. I am not physically or emotionally broken from my service. I have all my limbs. I don’t desperately need the VA to treat me. There is really nothing to thank me for.
You see though, we understand that the average person doesn’t get to say thank you to those who have died, and it would be way too uncomfortable to thank the guy with no legs and a burnt face because to look at him frightens us. It is much easier to thank the happy looking person in the Army T-Shirt at the local convenience store. I understand this. I understand that 99% of your intentions are good and that is why no matter how I really feel I will ALWAYS say, “You are welcome” because I am answering that question for those who can’t. They too would say that you are welcome and I am happy to take that small burden for them.
I guess all I ask is that you get to know us a little better before you take the conversation further, or to truly understand your own intentions for continuing the conversation. I don’t know any Service Member past or present that will refuse to answer your question, or who will burden you with how they feel. Just know that we have a lot of feelings associated with our service, and not all of them are things you want to hear or know about or could possibly understand even if we told you. Asking about that is for friends, family, and fellow service members.
I know I am not the only one who feels this way but I am also not pretending to speak for any of my brothers and sisters. This is just my thoughts and feelings on these exchanges. If you are ever in doubt, or you are talking to someone you don’t really know and don’t have the time or inclination to really have that deep conversation; please just leave it at thank you, and I promise to say that you are welcome.