No Thank You, Thank You

Often, when some perfectly nice, well-meaning person learns I am a Vietnam veteran they will thank me for my service. Honesty compels me, at the risk of appearing (or being) rude, to tell that kind person that serving wasn’t entirely my idea—powerful elements of the federal government insisted that I go. I’m not comfortable being thanked for something I was compelled to do.

More importantly I am uncomfortable with the thank you because of how we, as a nation, treat vets. ‘Thank you for your service’ has become a superficial, almost meaningless gesture as impactful and heartfelt as a perfunctory ‘Have a nice day’.

The two phrases are similar in another regard—I may say, have a nice day, but I am probably not making any real effort to insure that you day is nice. And most people won’t assist a veteran beyond saying, ‘Thank you for your service.’ This mirrors the what the German Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer has described as ‘cheap grace’ initiated with virtually no sacrifice being required.

Our society has not met its obligations to veterans. We train men and women to fight for us. Spend billions of tax dollars to give them the fearsome tools of war. They go to war in our name, suffer the consequences of war, and when they return, they do not get the care, the training, the tools to reconstruct their lives. They don’t get the assistance they need (deserve) to heal their wounds and readjust to society.

Post-Vietnam era veterans have the greatest risk of becoming homeless, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Do we say ‘Thank you for your service’ to a homeless vet? Or do we avoid making eye contact and move on?

Veterans have a higher unemployment rate than does the general population, according to the US Dept. of Labor.

Veterans have a higher suicide rate than does the general public, according to the Veterans Administration.

As a society we are failing our veterans. Funding for military weapons is readily available. Money to support of veterans and their families, money for counseling, job training, for mental health programs do not as high a priority with politicians or the public.

Rather than merely thank a veteran for his or her service, think about what we really owe them. Consider what you can do to really help vets. Encourage state and federal legislators to support veterans and their families. Look for and support local and national non-profits and organizations that have proven they assist veterans. Make thanking a vet meaningful.

Bob Mlynek