If you are wearing a uniform of the armed forces of the United States, or even wearing a symbol of military service such as a lapel pin or vet hat, you may hear these words usually spoken by well-meaning citizens: “Thank you for your service.”
Sometimes it is spoken in a less direct manner and often in the form of a question such as: “Did you serve?” As a career Marine veteran, it’s pleasing to respond to such well-meaning comments and questions. As a military veteran, I usually respond with, “I appreciate your comment,” or a simple, “Thank you.”
I especially appreciate it because there was a time when those types of comments were far from well-meaning; they were downright hostile. Military personnel returning from the war in Vietnam were often met with words far less gracious than a simple “Thank you.” But, today, it’s different. For me and other veterans I have known, how to respond to some of the follow-up comments is sometimes a challenge.
These well-meaning folks usually do have follow-up comments. “What did you do? Where did you serve? Were you in a war?” And any number of inquisitive conversational exchanges often extend the initial intent of simply being kind. Therein lies the challenge. Unfortunately, in today’s society, many people directing those words to me are lacking in having even a basic understanding of what military service actually is. Thus, the response dilemma. It’s not their fault. It’s a societal thing.
Times have changed. For the most part, the only people serving in the military today volunteer to do so. People who should know statistics tell us less than 1 percent of today’s population personally knows of someone serving in the military. Most folks simply are unaware that our armed forces members are as diverse as any number of large civil organizations with special organizational missions.
When the Selective Service draft was in use from 1917 to 1975, military service touched virtually every able-bodied male living in the United States. In those days a whole lot of people were military-savvy. Since the mid-1970s, it has been an all-volunteer service, and people join for a multitude of reasons. They join different branches of the armed forces and serve in different military occupational specialties that are uniquely different, each with its own mission with different means and standards for accomplishing them.
Through the media and Hollywood movies, we often hear and see the special operations forces without realizing that each of the four armed forces contributes personnel and equipment to them. While special operations are on our television screens more often, it is also through similar news broadcast where we may sometimes catch visual exhibits and photographs of the combat arms elements of the armed forces being highlighted. Aircraft in the skies, ships on the water and tanks, artillery and infantry on the ground produce the public image of their expected view of the military.
Hidden from most of these recruiting photo ops, movies and news clips, however, are the often unheralded mechanics who keep everything moving and functional, the truck drivers, computer operators, office clerks, payroll persons, supply persons, military police, public information operatives, communications and intelligence persons, and dozens of other combat support personnel who make up the unheralded mass of our military and naval forces. They are rarely seen by the public. Yet, each person and occupation is equally important in supporting the basic mission of all our armed forces to be fully prepared to wage war and to win.
For the most part, the men and women of our armed forces enjoy what they do and all of them, in one way or another, asked for the job. Every day is a training day. Preparing for war has its cost in time and sometimes injuries and deaths. It has been stated by someone that the more you sweat and bleed in preparing for war, the less you bleed and die in war. Men and women who serve in or have served in the armed forces accept the cost of preparedness. Many have paid the ultimate price of serving this nation with their lives, many others with devastating wounds.
It has become the norm to refer to all military persons as heroes. It has a nice ring to it, but it is not an accurate description of average military members, or veterans. Sure, there are some genuine heroes within our ranks, but they are few and far between. I served for 26 years as an active-duty Marine. Though I served in some dangerous situations, including combat in Vietnam, I am no hero. I’ve known some, and I’m not one of them.
As far as I am concerned, Medal of Honor folks are heroes. And most other high-level award recipients for bravery are heroes. Yet I’ve known some heroes who were never recipients of any personal military awards. Sometimes it is the unsung hero who stands taller in my esteem than some recipients of visible awards. In my opinion, “hero” is an overused word.
I do appreciate those offering favorable comments toward my active-duty service. At the same time, I do wish that more folks were more familiar with the complexity of military life, and its accompanying element of danger. Perhaps then we could engage in a more meaningful dialogue.
Finally, on this Veterans Day, to those who offer their gracious comments, I offer a sincere thank you.
Ralph Stoney Bates served 26 years as an active-duty Marine. He lives in Mount Pleasant.