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The Ineptitude of My Gratitude (How Not To Thank A Veteran)


On Veterans day this year, I walked around feeling oddly anxious, thinking to myself that I Should know how to observe this day better than I have in the past. But I didn't. Should I cut class and go to the parade? Should I donate blood? Should I send a note to some folks I know? In the end, I went to class, shared this article, Please Don't Thank Me For My Service, with folks and wrote a post—which I didn't post because it was flawed. Then on Thanksgiving I watched a kid at the table thank "the soldiers of the US Army," while blushing with potatoes in his hair, reminding me a messy thanks, is better than no thanks at all.

Last fall, I was getting ready for my first day of work as a clinical social work intern. For a year I'd be working with veterans of the U.S. military currently pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees. When I got out of the shower, I spied an enormous, multi-legged waterbug-roach-worm-dinosaur-insect (if you've ever lived in NYC you get my drift) and froze. As much as I hate admitting it, I have a bug phobia. It's quite visceral. Usually I go for the bug relocation plan, but I didn't have time to call my sister to talk me through it. I grabbed a Swifter, and tried to smoosh it—without looking. This was not an efficient tactic. I talked to myself, yelled, used a magazine to clean up the debris, and made a stain. Shaking, I realized that I might be late to my first day of working with men and women who had served in the military because I'd freaked out over a BUG. Who the heck was I to go work with veterans? What if they found out I'm a children's author, who loves the theatre, has never gotten into a physical fight in my life, and is afraid of bugs? Would any of them even talk to me? And if they did, what on earth was I going to say to them?

I Do Not Believe in Stereotyping, but there I was, stereotyping people I had not even met. Somewhere in my mind, there was a cardboard cut-out of a tough, staunch, cold, aggressive, critical of anything soft, muscle flexing, sunglass wearing, capital V-Veteran, whom I was already failing to support, by being ridiculously afraid of insects.

Of course, I never met that stereotype in the year I worked with and learned from the men and women using the GI bill they had earned to attend college. Just like any group of people who have gone through a common, extremely affecting, life shaping experience, they are just that: a group of people. We have a tendency to let certain aspects of people become an entire identity when we turn them from adjectives to proper nouns. The Homeless, The Poor, The Disabled, The Wealthy, The Veterans. People connected through the military experience, are not as uniform as the uniform may lead some of us civilians to assume. Maybe we've been saying "veterans" a bit too long, too often, making it easy to forget that who we are really talking about are a whole lot of unique individuals who, for all kinds of reasons decided to train, work, be at the ready; in all different ways and lengths of time, who have had varied experiences. People who might, as all people do, take some effort to get to know.

My agency had suggested that we say, "thank you for your service" first thing, every time we met someone new, yet it didn't feel at all the right thing to do when I walked into the college's veteran's lounge. What felt right, was to do what I usually do when meeting someone new: say hello, do my best to listen as they say hello back, and see what happens next.

What happened next, was that I had the great fortune of getting to know a variety of people who had served in the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force in all different capacities and who were now pursuing all kinds of degrees and living all kinds of lives. Over the year I sometimes asked people about "thank you for service". People had varying opinions. A very few liked it, some were indifferent, and most said that phrase made too many assumptions about their motivations, what their job was, and who they are now. One person explained, "They say 'service' but have no idea what I actually did all those years, where I was. And then they don't ask, so you can tell they don't really give a shit." It annoyed others because, "you can tell they're saying it just to feel better about themselves, or because it's just what you're supposed to do." Still others admitted that they often didn't tell people they'd just met socially about their military experience, because "then all of a sudden, that's all you are." They recounted the incredibly ignorant things people constantly say to them, such as, "did you kill anybody?" They spoke about the gap of understanding civilians have about military service and how that can make it hard for them to reconnect or make new connections. "People don't understand."

We, civilians, don't understand. We can't understand. Still, regardless of how any of us feels about war and politics, the people who have served have earned our recognition, so long as by recognition we mean that they are entitled to be heard, to be given the floor, and perceived clearly and specifically as individuals. So on Veterans day, or any day we might meet someone and find out that they have served in the military, what is the right thing to say?

A few weeks after my internship ended, en route to a month long writers retreat, I found myself, on a plane, seated next to a man with a thirty-five year career in the US Army. It felt like a test. Didn't I owe it to all those people who'd graciously educated me all year long, to know what to say? My backpack was a mess of last minute packing, I had pens falling out of my hair, and all I had was a year of practicing the art of not knowing. In the moment we said hello, I sensed from him kindness, stories, and an interest in chatting; I felt curiosity, respect, and fear of coming off like a dopey civilian. So I led with that.

I awkwardly asked him what his MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) was. He looked surprised, but lest he think I was actually conversant in military acronyms, I quickly warned that I was a civilian and therefore likely to say some dumb things, but that I was interested in hearing more about his work, if he wanted to talk about it. And he did want to tell me about his military career, his car repair hobby, his wife, his children. When he asked about me I told him about how I was a children's author, liked the theatre, and had recently had the great luck of working with a whole bunch of people who had taught me everything about all I do not know and can't understand about military life, and how incredibly grateful I am to them for that.

This post is long, messy, and full of mistakes, because one thing I learned about how to thank a veteran, as a civilian, is that there is no one right way and sometimes there might not even be any right way. I also learned that it's okay for me to be afraid of bugs and of making mistakes, so long as I don't let that fear get in the way of my showing up. So, maybe that's what we civilians can do on veterans day, and every day. Just keep looking for ways to show up, listen, learn, and bridge that gap in our understanding.