Way back in 2013, I wrote a post about this particular statement – “Thank you for your service.” It’s a rather simple statement usually provided once people find out the extremely small detail that I served in the US military for eight years. And even now, some seven years after I wrote this article, it’s still a statement that makes me cringe. Not because people are thanking me for the eight years of my life that I freely gave up. No, not that at all. Because, for the most part, it’s an empty platitude usually meant to elicit a response from the public on the querent’s profound sense of patriotism. In other words, the person making the statement wants to be recognized as being patriotic in the eyes of others by thanking a veteran.
Now, I know that’s not always the case. Some people are genuinely expressing their thanks for me putting on a uniform, foregoing my rights to be judged under the very structure of the Constitution that I am swearing to defend, and potentially laying my life on the line in the defense of the freedoms of this county and its citizenry. But in my experience, those folks are so few and far between. I know that many others are saying thanks to show pride in what I did for eight years, hoping to provide a moment for me to feel good about my service. They are trying their best to erase an ugly moment in our history, where troops returning from Viet Nam were spat upon and decried as “baby-killers”. Certainly, there were instances of bad behavior by troops within that war zone, but the American public painted with a broad-brush, as it often does – splattering blame on military folks who had nothing to do with such atrocities. However, painting with a broad brush is no excuse for what did happen.
Rest assured, I saw a lot of bad behavior while I was in the military, both here in the United States and overseas. In Germany, military personnel accounted for a large majority of the rapes in the Kaiserslautern Military Community while I was there. Drunken driving, and the resultant accidents were also predominantly military issues. During the riots in Los Angeles after the trial of the assailants of Rodney King, there were military members that overturned vehicles on Sembach Air Base – sharing in the emotional outrage that had occurred. Military personnel are no saints, and they are prone to the exact same bad behaviors as their civilian citizenry is. Again, rest assured, I was no saint either.
That’s right. I accumulated some bad behavior while I was in the Air Force. Specifically, I played the role of “dog robber” for my unit, a NATO designated unit under control of NATO command at Brussels, Belgium. We did not receive our equipment or our unit funding from US military command authority. Ours came from NATO and as such, we were severely under-funded and under-equipped. A “dog robber” is the same thing as a scrounger. I took equipment that we had too much of, and utilized that to barter for equipment that we didn’t have and needed. This method of equipment transfer is illegal in any military and is referenced as “black marketeering.” Typically, military equipment gets sold to civilian counter parts for illicit monetary payments. My manner of operating was to trade equipment with other military units, so that we could comply with necessary TT&E (Training, Testing & Exercising) requirements. I never traded with civilians because I could not get what we needed from them. Plus, transferring equipment between units was a “look away” moment from command, whereas trading with civilians was considered to be criminal (as it should be). For my unit, I traded sixty ice cream makers (seriously) for three-hundred-and-seventy-five magnetic tape reels with a US Navy Frigate docked in Rota, Spain. In another transaction, I obtained a Connex shed (essentially a shipping container that you usually see being loaded on ships and trains) for my unit to store excess equipment in (such as our chemical warfare gear). None of this was done with implicit command authority knowledge, but my commander had made the comment that it would “sure be nice to have…” My job was to make it happen. And most of the time, I did.
I never finished my second hitch. My first enlistment was for four years. My second was for six. I only served for four. My mortal sin was missing a single early morning exercise. Not the kind with rifles and military combat training. Exercise, as in jumping jacks, push-ups, and aerobics with a step-board. It was held at the gym on Sembach. I worked a night shift until 1am and went back to Vogelweh to catch a quick nap. I was due at the exercise at the Sembach gym at 6am. I never showed. I was fast asleep on my couch with the tv still on. This earned me the wrath of my Command Sergeant, who never liked my way of dealing with things. I was always on the edge of the line. This was the opportunity to nail my ass to the wall. And he did. I left the Air Force on a General Discharge Under Honorable Conditions, thanks to my commander. My Command Sergeant was going to process me out on a Dishonorable Discharge. My commander intervened on the process type, but my separation from the military was going to happen regardless.
I would not consider my time in the military to be an overall happy one. However, it did teach me a skill set – utilizing mainframe systems. I parlayed that experience into the career I have today. But those words – “thank you for your service” – still ring hollow in my ears. Except when they come from another veteran, because I know they understand. I know they’ve experienced some of the same military idiocy that I did. Where commanders, upper-ranks sergeants all seemed to think that spit and polish equated to combat readiness. Where the worry was on how you looked, not on how you managed to think on your feet in the middle of a crisis moment.
No, I don’t need to be thanked for any part of my service. Much the same as the way I approach my work. I worry about the results…how I look or how I get there is immaterial. But I also realize that don’t need to be the salty veteran that feels the need to piss all over some well-meaning kid’s empathy – even if it is misplaced. So, I smile – in the days before COVID, I would offer my hand for a handshake – and I say, “No sir (or ma’am as the case might be), thank you for remembering.” Even when I don’t feel like their statement is merited. Because there’s a level of decency that goes along with being a real American citizen. And Gods, I sure as the Nine Hells don’t see a lot of that currently. Our deep division in politics, our inability to find reason on the issues of race and the such, the violent arguments over something as inane as wearing a mask….there’s no need for me to react angrily over a simple statement. There is a need for me to lead by example, and graciously accept the statement, even when it is an empty platitude.