Is 'thank you' loaded?

Whenever I conclude a conversation with a military vet, I try to remember to say, “Thank you for your service.”

Today, when I expressed that sentiment at the end of a phone call with a former U.S. Marine reservist, I was startled when he pooh-poohed my gratitude.

“You seem like a nice person, but really, it annoys me when people say that," he said. "They don’t mean it.”

I won’t give you the soldier’s name – he asked that I not identify him – but he’d phoned to complain about my column today in which I opined that Americans appear to support the troops to a greater degree than they did Vietnam soldiers.  I’d cited as anecdotal evidence conversations I’d had with over 100 founders or members of troop-support groups, peopled by empathic citizens eager to show appreciation for men and women in uniform.

My caller dismissed the efforts as hollow, “feel-good” gestures from people who have no idea what it’s like to serve. He characterized the “Thanks-for-your-service” line as easy lip service.

Suddenly embarrassed, I wondered if most vets felt as he did. Maybe, when I’d expressed gratitude them for their service, they, too, felt irked instead of thanked.

When I asked the vet to elaborate, he suggested that I instead talk to his John Bruhns, his military buddy. Bruhns, he said, is eloquent and could better expand upon the point he was trying to make.

I recognized Bruhns’ name. A Philly native and current suburbanite, he’s written op-eds for us and blogs about military matters for The Huffington Post. His writing is smart and thoughtful, informed by his service in Iraq, where he was among the first troops to put boots on the ground.

“It’s never inappropriate to say thank you,” said Bruhns, a married father who works for the state and is getting his master’s degree in criminal justice. “I appreciate it. Maybe one percent of the American population has direct military experience, so I think saying ‘thank you’ is the least people can do. I appreciate it.”

What he doesn’t appreciate it, he says, are able-bodied young men who’ve never enlisted and are armchair advocates for war.

“They sit in air-conditioned cubicles and thump their chest and say we ought to kick-ass overseas and they think their rhetoric is showing support for the troops.  It would mean more if they actually enlisted and put their bodies where their rhetoric is.”

Worse, he says, is when these “chicken hawks,” as he calls them, say he is unpatriotic because he has criticized the invasion of Iraq (he is a featured speaker in Finding Our Voices:Stories Of American Dissent). 

The fringe right, he says, “will say that I’m an al-Qaeda sympathizer,” says Bruhns, who enlisted in the military after a friend was killed in the 911 bombings.  “The fringe left will call soldiers war criminals. So you’re always dealing with the extremes.”

 For the record, though, he wants to say that it is never inappropriate to thank a soldier for his service.

“To say that you have to have direct military experience to appreciate” the sacrifices of service, "is absurd. I’m grateful to hear ‘thank you.’”

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