I fought in Afghanistan. When people learn of my military service, I get a variety of comments — none more common than “Thank you for your service. ” My response sometimes surprises people. I look them in the eye and say, “You’re welcome.”
For years, I struggled to find the appropriate response. I felt uncomfortable when thanked because I didn’t know what to say. My friend and mentor Eric Greitens, who founded the Mission Continues, experienced similar feelings. He suggested that I simply reply the way my mother taught me.
When I began to respond with “You’re welcome,” I was concerned that it shocked people. I wondered if I was being too flippant or prideful. Then I realized that their reaction said something about what “Thank you for your service” now means in American culture. The phrase has become a reflex for civilians who don’t know what else to say. Most people today play a minimal role in national defense beyond expressing gratitude to those who have served on their behalf.
Many civilians may genuinely wish to have played a larger role in America’s recent conflicts — if only from the home front. In lieu of participation, they offer thanks. Society has normalized this practice, with the result that some Americans consider uttering thanks to be a fulfillment of their patriotic duties.
This helps explain the surprise many people show when I say “You’re welcome.” All I mean is that I am proud to have fought for my country. But often the thank you means more to the person offering it than to the person being thanked.
When I sat on a panel in front of 75 Tillman Military Scholars — some of our best and brightest post-9/11 veterans — in July, I asked the audience who felt uncomfortable when thanked for their service. Almost every hand went up.
This may not be true for all veterans, but post-9/11 veterans are different. My own family’s history provides an example of why.
My great-grandfather served in World War I. Both of my grandfathers served in World War II. My father served in Vietnam. Like me, they served in the Army. But, unlike me, they were drafted. I am the first in my family to have volunteered for the military.
Afghanistan is now our nation’s longest war. Everyone who served in any branch of the military since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks volunteered to do so. Five million Americans knowingly and willfully joined and re-enlisted in wartime.
Sustained combat operations with an all-volunteer force has yielded a cohort of veterans different from generations that endured conscription. For better or for worse, veterans from my generation don’t gather at VFW halls for beers and war stories. Instead, we congregate with Team Rubicon for disaster relief, with Team Red White and Blue for physical training and with the Mission Continues for community service.
Post-9/11 veterans are asking to be engaged, empowered and held to high expectations. We yearn to be told by a grateful American public that our talents are still needed here at home.
This Veterans Day, on behalf of my fellow Afghanistan and Iraq veterans, I say to the country: There’s no need to thank us. You’re welcome for our service. But take a minute to talk with us. Ask us where we served, learn about what we did in the military and find out what’s next in our lives.
Chris Marvin, an Army veteran, founded Got Your 6, a campaign to narrow the civilian-military divide.
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