Why Some Veterans Hate it When You Say 'Thank You'

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Though the majority of Americans have never served in the military, most everyone is conscious of the dramatic toll that this past decade's two wars have taken on the uniformed services, nearly 7,000 of whose members have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, with many more wounded. So many non-veterans have taken to showing their gratitude and awareness by thanking veterans who they pass on the street.

But this simple gesture, well intentioned though it may be, is not always welcome. In fact, some veterans say that hearing strangers tell them "thank you" can be awkward or downright painful. Foreign Policy's Tom Ricks, who writes frequently on the U.S. military, raised the issue by posting a column written by an anonymous Marine veteran. The column, which Ricks headlined "You can go strangle yourself with that yellow ribbon, or, here is what I want you to do instead of shaking my hand," suggests that veterans would rather see civilians make difficult choices about the factors that led us into war in the first place, and how to prevent future war, rather than slapping a bumper sticker on their car. "As a young person who served in a war you made, I don't want your handshake, your pity, your daughter's phone number, or your faded bumper sticker. I did my frigging job so now do yours. Baby Boomers and Generation X: I want your leadership."

The anonymous Marine's column concludes by calling for a draft. While this has generated discussion in its own right, Ricks and his vocal commenters, many of them in the military, have also focused on the Marine's resentment towards "thankful" civilians--a feeling many say they share but do not often discuss. Here are excerpts of a few commenter responses. Click through to read the whole comment and to see Ricks' own thoughts on this touchy issue.

Here's one "disheartened" response:

When I hear "thank you" from someone I don't even know, I get pretty disheartened. I'll concede that my views are probably a bit further out on this than most vets'. I was never convinced by the justification for the Iraq invasion, so I never understood my deployment to be upholding and defending the Constitution or to be protecting the American people. So the only thing for which I can feel legitimately thanked is for abstractly being willing to die had there been a cause worth dying for. ... "Welcome home"? Entirely appropriate. But I feel really uncomfortable hearing "thank you" for something I feel was a waste of taxpayer dollars and of global goodwill toward the US.

Another says it only brings up his or her doubts about the merit of invading Iraq:

Each [KIA] led me to ask myself, what the f*** are we doing here? I've been back nearly 4 years now, left the Marine Corps in 08, and I still can't come to terms with that question. The more I think about it, the more I become sick to my stomach, and each "thank you" only reinforces that feeling. I hope to one day get to the point where "thank you" doesn't make me feel awkward, but I don't see that being anytime soon.

A third says it's awkward or, if too over the top, "disgusting."

You ask how it feels when some says "Thanks for serving", or words to that effect. Well, it depends and I can only speak for myself.

The big banners "Support our Troops" on a box store: disgusting.

A manager at a restaurant picking up the bill: a bit embarrassing, to be honest.

A stranger saying, "Thanks for serving" while I'm at the grocery store on the way home from work: that's a little more complicated, but they mean well if only for a moment, which is what makes it complicated. Rather than interrogating them about how they voted and are they donating to veterans groups, I have parsed my response down to this: "It's an honor to serve."

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