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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Thank You For Your Service

U.S Major General James L.Terry left,  Commander Regional Command South slautes as he along with other stand for American National anthem during a transfer of command authority ceremony in Kandahar airbase in Afghanistan. (AP)

U.S Major General James L.Terry, left, and other soldiers slaute during a transfer of command ceremony in Kandahar airbase in Afghanistan. (AP)

What do you say when you see a soldier in uniform, in an airport, say, or another public place? Well, it might surprise you to know that some members of the military are uncomfortable with the phrase “thank you for your service.”

An English instructor at West Point makes the case for a deeper connection between civilians and soldiers in an essay for Bloomberg.com. Elizabeth Samet says the phrase “thanks for your service” has a “sort of mechanical perfunctory tone to it, as if we want to thank the soldier for serving then we want to move on to the next thing.”


  • Elizabeth Samet, English instructor at West Point Military Academy

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  • Kim Corcoran

    As a 33 year member of the USAF, I think some of the issue is that the service member does not know what to say. When thanked for my service,  I either say, “Thank you for your support!” or “you’re welcome, it’s my pleasure to serve.”

    It’s a nice gesture, we should not ask for more.

  • Tacitus

    If you really want to respect the citizen soldiers, oppose the unjustified conflicts and misguided politics that create dangerous situations

  • Caleb T Cramer

    I am frequently greeted in this way, and I have no idea how to respond. Although I feel my service is important and I do make sacrifices, I chose this as a profession. I am never asked what it is I do, and when I do explain I am in the Navy, that is frequently greeted with something like “well, at least you ate not in danger.”. Which is untrue, and really makes ME feel somehow guilty, as if I’m not doing enough. Thank you for discussing this topic.

  • Lacy Miller

    The majority of soldiers need this recognition. Maybe the author needs to seperate herself from the elite and survey the lower ranks. If this feels unconfortable for you to say I recomend you add “Welcome Home”.  Also if you think the Vietnam Veteran Era “Spitting Encounters” were myths I suggest you survey for witnesses or participants. There are many.

  • Just another Grunt

    You NPR folk make me laugh. 
    We Grunts know what you think of us, and will always think of us, even though you try to make yourself feel better with pleasantries and platitudes. 
    Kipling said it best nearly 100 years ago, and you can bet, Tommy still sees.

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      I can’t speak for NPR’s employees, but I’ve been a long-time listener.  I respect any person who does an honorable job.  I’ve had many students who come from the military, and as a group, they have been hard workers who have made something of themselves.

      As a gun nut, I also ask what they think of the AR-15.

    • Alex Ashlock, Here and Now

      Felt I should respond to this as the producer of this segment. We have a veteran on our staff and some of us have fathers who have served. Speaking for myself, I have great respect for people who serve, whether they do it voluntarily or they were drafted.     

  • Barlow_307thaeb

    I am a WWII Living historian, and have been confronted and tole by many that they thank me for my service, I am also a former Air force service member.

    This thanking me for my service does leave me feeling extremely embarrassed that they would mistake a WWII Uniform with a modern service Uniform, I try to justify this feeling with the face I served in the Air Force, yet even as a simple crew chief who never left the states, I feel even more embarrassed. For I feel they are thanking me for placing my life on the line in combat, when this is simply not the case.

    • Nml852

      Well said, sir.

      Please do consider, however, that through you, they are thanking your whole generation for serving so comprehensively. Such mass service is inconceivable in this century. You and your survival, regardless of the mundane — to you only at this point in time, if you will forgive me for adding — details , represents something incredible to them. Whether or not they know it, they are expressing relief that THEY did not have to navigate the same challenges.

      THIS is what they are really thanking you for. passage of time makes a difference, and you have earned the justified gratitude of those who follow. Please rest assured that there are entry of us in maintenance to carry on your in-the-moment sentiment of, “who, me? Thank the guys who got shot at…”.

      We do it every day. Thank you for turning the wrench properly when it needed to be done. You may never know which flight or convoy didn’t fail because you did the work. And you don’t need to. You were there. And you’re still here. And someone else is still here because of you. And THAT’s the whole point

  • Anonymous

    I was sitting in the tire store the other day having my tires changed. There was a guy in cargo shorts with a unit tattoo on his shin. Another guy was sitting between me and him and, seeing the tattoo, said to him “Thank you for your service” and commenced to talk to him about it. Having returned from the Vietnam war myself nearly 30 years ago (no unit tattoo) I could tell the Afghanistan vet was uncomfortable and, sure enough, in a few minutes he arose and stepped to the outside of the shop and lit up a cigarette, pacing back and forth. It occurred to me that a very quiet ‘Welcome Home’ has always worked for me. Then leave it at that. Having said that, I’m grateful that there are folks who care. 

  • C L

    My wife and I met a soldier on his way back to Iraq for a 2nd or maybe 3rd tour, at a time before my own brother was going to Iraq. We were seated next to him on the plane. He seemed worried, distraught, uncomfortable. We broke the silence offering him something from our meal…he was not eating. I shared that I came from a military family (Army, Navy, Marines)—3 generations. The conversation eased him and probably did more for him than the food. We didn’t give him any ‘canned’ thanks…just simple conversation. I think more people need practice reading others around them. 

    For whatever reason they joined the service, no matter what political arguments surround us, treat them like people.  I think it’s fine to thank them…but do so in the course of a normal conversation. We asked if he would mind if we prayed for his safety. He agreed and gave us his name. We don’t know what happened to him, but we hope he’s safe.

  • Fanoula04

    As a soldier, a “thank you for your service” does not go unappreciated. Yet at times I do want to engage further in a dialogue. I feel there are many inaccurate perceptions about wars and the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who fight them. As a woman soldier, I experience many comments like “well your not on the front lines”, downplaying my service and sacrifices. I would appreciate the effort to be asked what it is I do etc., and hopefully change some misconceptions.

  • Conniejandrews

    Not sure if you meant to say the ‘spitting’ (during Vietnam) was mostly ‘mythology’? Surely was not, my husband was in the Navy Band and after playing taps for a funeral he stopped to pick my list of needed groceries and was spit on in the grocery. (Often given the ‘finger’ while driving in his uniform.) Have a friend who returned home from Vietnam (Air Force) and all were spit on at the airport. My connections are few, but my husband and other friends can tell their stories that would reinforce this ‘myth’.
    Thank you, a most interesting subject to ponder and we do need to alter our approach.

    Connie J. Andrews
    Defiance, Ohio
    p.s. you are still the best of the best on air, miss you when you take you deserved breaks, sure they are mostly ‘working’ breaks!

  • Conniejandrews

    have to do a p.s.
    If someone had come up to my husband in D.C. (1969-73 and slapped him on the back and said ‘good job’, he would have had a really hard time knowing he was not in the “war” but was ONLY a trumpet player. So we get her many accurate descriptions of how comments are rec’d.

    Observing the dozens and dozens of funerals created his own type of PTSD. Perhaps just a simple THANK YOU or a tip of the hat is sufficient?

    Connie J. Andrews

  • Nml852

    It’s not so much the mechanical aspect of the phrase, but rather the dismissive and even self-congratulatory undercurrents that all too often flow under otherwise polite words.

    Many people tend to thank us because it’s a way to publicly declare themselves to be “good Americans” , as if the mere utterance of an approved phrase alongside a visible marker (a real, live military member) validates their lives or possibly absolves them from a chosen action or inaction – we can only guess at this. It is this nagging suspicion that we may simply be props in another’s staged need to feel good about themselves that makes us uncomfortable.

    A concrete suggestion: Actions count. If you want to thank us, don’t drive gussied- up military vehicles which waste gas and remind us that a car company found the assembly line space to service people who had money to burn, while telling our marines that they had no line space to up-armour real operational vehicles. Don’t treat Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day as holidays. Pearl Harbor Day is more than a square in December. Don’t kid yourself that a yellow magnet on the back of your car means something. And when you see us, just say “hi”, and be as friendly as you would to any other fellow American living life alongside you. If a deeper conversation is appropriate, it will happen naturally.
    Do please vote. Do please ensure that your kids learn complete history, and not just the preferred versions of the right or the left. Do please teach your kids that ALL citizens should serve their community in some capacity, and that such service is not” something that others do” . And yes, we understand that this is hard if you have not yet set this example yourself. It’s not too late to teach your kids that you learned something, and that you’re going to take concrete action to back it up.

    • lynn

      Excellent viewpoints, in my opinion.  Nuanced and well said.  Thank you.

    • sharky

      …or some of us civilians are truly proud of you and honored that you have sacrificed for the country at large and want to take an opportunity to simply say thanks, if you are that bitter and cynical, maybe you have been in too long or are in for the wrong reasons

  • dboyle101

    Whenever I hear someone offer (the sometimes mechanical) “Thank you for your service,” I hear “Thank you for taking my place, or the place of my son or neighbor or granddaughter.”  It sounds like the remark of someone hoping his/her guilt will not be noticed, someone standing on the sidelines.  It emphasizes the fact that this is somebody else’s war, not the speaker’s.  Without the draft, Americans have no ownership of conflict events: they belong to the Pentagon and to people who chose military careers, whether by vocation or just desperate for a job. 

    While “Thank you for your services” is often a sincere gesture, it still distances the serviceperson from the speaker.  This is not OUR war.  The US should institute a policy/law/constitutional amendment that says when any single uniformed personnel engages in an arena of conflict, as an advisor or fighter, under our own auspices or NATO, at that minute Congress activates the draft and levies a War Tax.  We keep feeding the Pentagon budget as if it were a bastard child hidden in the attic whom we keep with the fat of our larder, while we eat the scraps.  Two unfunded wars in a single decade, and we wonder why we have financial problems.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Robin Young,

    “Troop,” by definition means a group, not an individual.

  • former soldier

    Hard to believe  this is even a topic. Who cares? Every one of those men and women chose to participate in these imperialist wars.  Thanking them for their service? Service to who exactly? They aren’t doing anything for me.

  • M-Brat

    I was a military brat, my dad a “lifer” in the Army, and I grew up around soldiers in and out of uniform. I also witnessed the demise of the draft in the early ’70s, and saw the difference between draftees and those who volunteered. Seeing a person in military uniform does not cause me to want to do anything out of the ordinary, as that is their chosen profession. Yes, they chose to be potentially placed in harm’s way to defend others, just as a police officer or fire fighter does, so I don’t see why military personnel need to be placed in any other context than what it is: their chosen profession. And, if I may say so, the wars of choice that our “leaders” have opted to place them in does not automatically translate to defending our country. At this point, in the only vaguely justifiable combat that we’ve placed our troops in, Afghanistan, it has essentially degenerated to a kill-or-be-killed, day-to-day survival mode for them. Just like in Viet Nam.

  • Morgan

    When I see someone who is obiviously a service member I smile and/or say “Thank you for your service.”  My dad was a Navy fighter pilot for 33 years.  Finished his flight training at the end of Vietnam and was in the gulf war.  My cousin was in the Marines,my other cousing is in the Air Force,  my uncle was in the Marines, my grandfather was in the Army.  You never know where someone is coming from and what expereinces they hold with them.  For me – my comments and actions come from this place . . .” thank you for your service, thank god you are alive, thank you for keeping us safe, thank you for keeping my family, who has been in the service, safe.”  No matter your role in the service – you are all part of keeping “us” safe. 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6N3HAVWE7JFKP4FAOIA2NTLV2U Tim

    As a recent retiree and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan,  I’m glad you did this story.  I’ve always said that slapping a “Support Our Troops” magnet on your car or thanking us for our service is the least a person could do…the very least.  It’s the least possible time and effort a civilian could put forth to thank military members for their service.

    If you want to thank the military, get involved.  As the lady in the story mentioned, volunteering with the VA or other organizations would be justified.  And as another person commented, getting involved by opposing unjust and useless wars would be another good start.

  • A Viet Nam Vet

    After spending 4 years in the Army one of which was in Viet Nam I would have appreciated some thanks when I returned from the war instead of being called a “baby killer”.  Those were horrible times and the American people should have supported their troops.  A soldier’s job is not political, his job is to go where he is ordered and do the best job he can do for his country.  After more than 40 years I am proud to have served and I thank members of the military whenever possible.

    • M_o27

      I thank you for your service!

  • Leepatrizzi

    A woman noticed my Wounded Warrior T-shirt and after a short conversation gave me two business cards reading “I am part of our American Flag that flew over a home in Florida. I can no longer fly. In the sun & the wind, I have been tattered & torn, but not forgotten. You ARE NOT forgotten. Please carry me as a reminder.”  She gave me these for my brother and nephew who served our country.
    These business cards were in a mini ziploc with the beautiful embroidered star of an American flag in it also. I have since been making this little ziploc package to give to every Veteran I come across.  I will continue to make and give these as a way of showing my appreciation to our service members,  thanks to the wonderful woman who gave them to me.  

  • Negisd

    Some of the comments here are little bizarre and off track.
    I believe a smile and a nod of approval is sufficient for those who want to acknowledge military personnel in airports and bus stations. I have been a sailor and soldier and that is what I appreciated most, not awkward conversations. In fact, probing questions about the mission details and movements is closely guarded and is discouraged by the military commands.
    Look the person in the eyes and Smile and Nod! Its tasteful and simple and not awkward.

  • Negisd

    Some of the comments here are little bizarre and off track.
    I believe a smile and a nod of approval is sufficient for those who want to acknowledge military personnel in airports and bus stations. I have been a sailor and soldier and that is what I appreciated most, not awkward conversations. In fact, probing questions about the mission details and movements is closely guarded and is discouraged by the military commands.
    Look the person in the eyes and Smile and Nod! Its tasteful and simple and not awkward.

  • Spgordo

    I suppose there is always an axe to grind here.  If  you feel guilty or superior it can be” thank you for your service”

    If you are a Nazi it can be “Heil Hitler”
    If you are a neo Nazi it can be “your a great American” (“ura grate ‘merican”)

  • gjg64

    The few times I’m in close proximity to service members (airports, etc.) I try to make eye contact, give a nod and a grateful smile or other facial expression (not a big grin!).  I don’t want to break into their space and say anything but I do want them to know that I’ve seen and appreciate them.  However, if I’m sitting next to them on a plane or anywhere, I’ll try to be friendly and engage them in conversation….and let them do the talking.    I have once or twice bought a drink on a plane but only after a long and friendly conversation.  Oh and I will tell them my feelings about the wars (for Afghanistan, against Iraq) but that I want to hear THEIR thoughts.  I think they appreciate it.

  • Vjpulver

    A heartfelt thank you should simply be acknowledged.  As a career Air Force (retired) member I know that my uniform stirs many feelings in people.  If they feel compelled to thank me, I simply respond politely and modestly.  I do not question their motives. This interview struck me as odd. And even though we are an all volunteer force, when we serve, we make many difficult choices that make our lives challenging and change who we are…those who have not served may not understand how we live on the outside to a degree.  When someone says thank you, the appropriate response is to be gracious and warm( … and be grateful that they are not spitting on us as people did during the Vietnam era.).
    MSgt,USAF (Ret)
    In Steamy SC 

  • Susan

    How about a smile and a simple “Hello.”  I don’t understand why someone would feel compelled to say anything at all; I don’t. As someone on the show mentioned, we don’t know anything about the person or what job s/he does. It’s presumptuous to act as if we do.

  • One idea

    My father, a Vietnam vet, anonymously pays for the meals of any soldiers he sees dining within a restaurant he is in. This got expensive one time recently when my parents unknowingly stopped at a diner near a base. Outside of a restaurant he normally thanks soldiers for their service.

  • Janet

    Several years ago, I was waiting at the airport to meet my husband who was returning from a business trip. A young woman stood beside me, bouncing a baby. We got to chatting, and she said that her husband was arriving back from Afganistan and had not yet met his baby daughter. I asked her if she had a camera, offering to take pictures for her. She said she didn’t, so I went to the airport giftshop and bought a disposable point-and-shoot. When her husband came through to the arrivals area, I took lots of pictures of their reunion and then handed her the camera. I never said a word. I couldn’t speak. 
    Whenever I remember that day, I’m always glad that I was there to do something kind for that young family. I hope the pictures turned out okay.    

  • Njtstacey

    Yes, more civilians should express their thanks in the many ways she described on the program. However, I disagree with her in regards to the verbal expression of thanks. The whole point of saying thank you is because we do not know the soldier personally.  We also cannot stop every few seconds and have a long conversation with everyone we meet, but we still want that person to know we care, we notice, we feel. If I were still in the military and received a ‘thank you’ albeit awkwardly from some individuals, I would be grateful. The military is set apart and it would make me feel connected to the public because they chose to bridge the gap, no matter how it was expressed. Let’s face it, no matter what job in the military you chose, you always have the chance that they will call you to the front lines and they will choose you over a citizen because you volunteered. Let’s stop reading into everything, let’s not worry about why each individual might be expressing thanks. The general population is grateful for our service, the general population is respectful of our decision to join the military, and the general population understands that the person next to them may no longer be there the next day. Enjoy your neighbors with all the flaws that come with being an imperfect human being.

  • Denise Green

    Thank you for your service was an excellent program. I have a question for Professor Samet. Has troop replaced soldier? I thought that a troop was a group of soldiers yet I hear the words  troop or troops often used to refer to a soldier or soldiers. Is this correct? Thank you, an avid listener, Denise Green    dgreen719@comcast.net

  • navyvet

    As an active duty member, now veteran and military spouse, I have heard the “thank yous” a bunch.  When I was active duty I felt embarrassed at the recognition and a little awkward at strangers coming up to me, but understood it to be a lesson from Vietnam to appreciate our military members.  As a military spouse receiving the thank yous for my deployed husband, I have to admit I was bothered.  It was not an easy time for my family and by then the “automatic” response seemed to lack meaning and was insulting.  I work at a long term convalescent center for veterans that have sustained catastrophic injuries. Their lives and their families’ lives will never be the same.  Thank you just doesn’t cut it.  When I see young soldiers in uniform, I smile and nod.  My heart swells with pride, but I don’t seek them out to thank them.  To the public, put your money where your mouth is.  Volunteer, donate, write your congressman to demand we support these fine Americans in the way they truly deserve.

  • Heaviest Cat

    Maybe we should replace that phrase with an apology for allowing our government to wage questionable wars of occupation that needlesy put them in harm’s way, then ignores them when they get back.

  • J151126

    Not to be a religious freak, but instead of approaching a soldier and thanking him/her, I pray for them and their family. I don’t have much to give financially, but I want to give back, so that’s what I do. It’s just another option.

  • Lauren

    I understand the need for a more nuanced approach when saying “thank you” to a veteran. However, I work in retail/customer service and sometimes customers casually mention their military background or career. My fiancee is in the army and when a veteran mentions his or her service, I feel the need to thank them. This need does not come from guilt from not joining the military, nor does it come from a false sense of who veterans are. When I thanks vets for their sacrifices, I look them in the eyes, often shake their hands, and say “thank you” with sincerity.

    I don’t force conversation on strangers, but I also don’t shy away from it. Whether or not you agree with the current conflicts/wars is entirely irrelevant. I know my fiancee joined the army bychoice, but I also recognize that if my job asked me to move to another country or even just another state, I have the right to say, “No, this really isn’t a good time for me to move.” He will not have that choice, nor do any other men or women in uniform. The life of our military personnel is one of constant vigilance and preparedness. This is more than a career; it’s a life.

    Additionally, for those who are arguing that police officers and firefighters also risk their lives, of course they do. I believe we should be thanking the men and women who wear this uniforms as well. We should be advocating for legislation that supports them, just as we ought to fight for better services for returning veterans. That said, even police officers and firefighters generally come home to their families at night, kiss their children, and climb into bed with their partners. They do not go to jail for quitting their jobs. The type of sacrifice members of or armed forces make is not one to be taken lightly and if civilians feel moved to say, “thank you” maybe that isn’t such a bad thing.

    • Lauren

      Sorry for the typos.

  • Adrienne May

    My husband always states that he is uncomfortable with the phrase because he doesn’t want a thank you, he doesn’t feel like he is sacrificing but more that he is fulfilling a duty. He also feels guilty because he feels like so many other people have sacrificed more than him. 

  • Blip

    i dont know about all that “impolite politeness,” but for me, its the lack of anything to say in reply. if you say “youre welcome,” then it feels like youre acting like you deserve thanks. its just awkward

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