Don’t Let The Conversation Stop At ‘Thank You For Your
There are only a few things I genuinely disdain, but one of them is when people belittle our servicemen and veterans. Unfortunately, I see this happen too often. As a member of a club called the Patriot League in high school, my peers and I organized events that paid homage to our servicemen and women. One day, we listened to one of our Vietnam veteran security guards, Richie. He told of how when he came home from Vietnam, he took off his uniform immediately in the bathroom of the airport. Vets like Richie were derided by protesters as “baby-killers” and no one said, “Thank you for your service” to him. On the contrary, he was abhorred for his service by many.
I was appalled, thinking to myself rhetorical questions like did he ask to be drafted? Did he ask LBJ to send young men like him to war? It still irks me to this day how some blame servicemen for the actions and desires of actions of generals or government that they disapprove of, just like it infuriates me when people question why minimum wage workers at retail chains couldn’t get an education, while giving CEOs and high-end business executives a pass. When anger is pointed at the masses at the bottom, and not the exploitative elite at the top, I find it hard to contain my rage.
“While serious people can have legitimate differences about when our country should go to war, there should never be a debate whether we fulfill the promises made to the men and women who served this country in the military,” Senator Bernie Sanders says, “As a nation, we have a moral obligation to provide the best quality care to those who have put their lives on the line to defend us.”
But I digress. On Memorial Day, I find I’m angry at no one but myself. Frankly, I forgot what the holiday was about until it showed up on Google. I saw it as merely a tool to make more money at my job for working on a federal holiday, but I forgot who and what it was for; when I was in middle school and early high school, I saw it as a three-day weekend.
The purpose of Memorial Day, as I’ve just relearned, is to remember our fallen servicemen — a holiday first celebrated on May 30, 1868, to commemorate fallen Civil War soldiers. Since then, it has been expanded to honor all our servicemen in all our wars. But associating both veterans and fallen soldiers in this article may be insensitive: Navy veteran Luke Visconti says to not say “Thank you for your service” today to veterans. We need to recognize that veterans may have friends who died in service.
I usually don’t find much to agree with President Trump on, but on this particular Memorial Day, it’s hard to differentiate the two. This marks the 100-year anniversary of our entry into World War I, and he has asked government buildings to have their flags half-staffed until noon.
“Memorial Day is our Nation’s solemn reminder that freedom is never free,” he said, “It is a moment of collective reflection on the noble sacrifices of those who gave the last measure of devotion in service of our ideals and in the defense of our Nation.”
But let us not only take Memorial Day to honor the service of our fallen servicemen and veterans. We say “Thank you for your service” to veterans a lot, but what have we done to prove our gratitude? I don’t believe simply saying “Thank you for your service” should let you off the hook, as it has become the disingenuous equivalent to asking a stranger “How are you?” (not expecting them to actually talk to them about how they really are). I spent hundreds of hours volunteering at a VA’s home in high school, but I still feel like that isn’t enough, and maybe it will never be enough because the work will never be completely done.
Veterans are more likely to be homeless and commit suicide than civilians. Wait times for primary care at VAs homes are still too long. Too many suffer from PTSD. We need to support programs and organizations that take care of our veterans, like Stand Down, where we can volunteer to provide necessary services to homeless vets, or the Pat Tillman Foundation, which provides academic scholarships to veterans. Again, “Thank you for your service” isn’t enough.
We have a tendency of hero-worship towards our servicemen in the United States, which throughout my life I’ve always felt was justified. It’s hard not to, after all — who else would put their lives on the line for my rights and my freedoms? Who would sacrifice so much for my privilege, as a first-generation Asian-American, to be an American citizen?
I’ve seen a better perspective, from Iraq War vet and NYTimes journalist, Alex Horton, that putting our servicemen up on the pedestal robs us of the ability to see them as people in civilian life, and deters us from having a real conversation with them. Something I’m personally blindsided to is that a veteran isn’t just a veteran. As every single American is much more than a single identity, veterans are also students, workers, doctors, and anything else a civilian can be. But our hero-worship puts them in a limiting box, as just veterans.
I know the greatest deterrence from discussing issues in my personal life with people is the fear that they will no longer treat or see me like a normal person, and no longer see my identities as a runner, writer, or a friend who would drop everything to help. I have met people who suffer from mental health issues like depression and bipolar who find it dis-empowering when others treat them so sensitively that they don’t see them as anything more than a depressed or bipolar person, and not actually listen to them. It is a simple fact that we will never actually understand what someone else goes through. We have never lived through every second of another person’s life nor understood the individualized nuances each person goes through.
But with hero-worship, that lack of understanding is so inevitable that we no longer even try to listen, and that shouldn’t be the case. When I volunteered at the VA’s, I fell into this trap. All I could say to the vets was “Thank you for your service,” and hear their stories about their service, but not being cognizant enough of their talking about lives after — stories of their jobs, friends, and families. I was even surprised that they asked about my life as I’d put them on such a high pedestal that I would just give minor details, and my worship made me limit the fact that I didn’t see the vets as more than just vets, and robbed me of the capacity to have a real conversation with them as I would any other person.
So one thing I can do better, that we can all do better, something within all of our control, is to not let the conversation stop at “Thank you for your service.”