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I Was Never In The Military. Please Stop Thanking Me For My Service.

by Neal Litherland 3 months ago in opinion

Commentary on This Strange Social Ritual

I remember the first time it happened. I was sitting in a booth with a friend, and eating pasta when an older man approached our table. I looked up when he cleared his throat, and before I could say anything he just smiled at me.

"Young man," he said. "I just want to thank you for your service."

I was confused. I glanced at the friend I was having lunch with, and he shrugged. I looked back up at the guy. I wanted to explain to him the mistake that he'd made, but he seemed so earnest that I just nodded. He seemed satisfied with that, and it meant neither of us had to deal with the awkward explanation that he'd apparently mistaken me for a military veteran.

It was sort of flattering, in a way, but mostly it was confusing. My hair was down past my shoulders at the time, and I had a beard. I had on a deep blue jacket that was military cut, sure, but both shoulders clearly had the German flag on them, making it clear it was something I'd picked up as surplus. I had on a pair of heavy boots, but they were motorcycle boots, not combat boots, and didn't even have laces.

At the time I figured it was just a random mistake. One of those freak accidents that's sort of awkward at the time, but makes for a funny story you can tell at a party later. Unfortunately, it's something that keeps happening.

Is It Really About The Veterans?

It seems like at least once per year some stranger comes up to me to thank me for my service. Sometimes I can sort of see where they got the idea in their heads that I might be a veteran. Like the time I was on a date at a pizza place, and I had on an old-fashioned camouflage BDU jacket with the sleeves rolled up. The woodland pattern on it had been officially phased out years ago, but I can see where the mistake was made. Other times, though, as hard as I look in the mirror, I have no clue what about me made someone think, "That guy looks like he's served."

Out of the four of five times in the past few years this has happened, though, none of these people have ever stopped to ask me if I was a veteran before thanking me. Not even a questing, "So which branch were you in?" to sort of test the waters before putting both of us in a very awkward position.

Because sometimes if you correct someone on their assumption, they'll apologize. They might get a little flustered, but in the end no one really got hurt. On the other hand, people in general (and Americans in particular) do not like to be corrected when they get something wrong. And there is always the chance that being corrected will lead to a confrontation. Because their thought won't be, "Wow, I shouldn't make assumptions about complete strangers," in these situations. Instead, it might be something along the lines of, "You should be ashamed of yourself for looking like you did something heroic when you didn't!"

My guy... I'm just standing here. You're the one who approached me.

Which brings me to the point of the ritual of thanking veterans for their service. Because that's what it's become; a ritual. A bizarre, societal rite that we perform when prompted to. And while I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who mean well, or think it's a nice gesture, there are just as many people for whom it's just performative. Like offering someone your condolensces when a loved one passes, or offering a blessing when they sneeze. It's part of the formula that controls our social interactions.

And that is where the negativity can come from. Because when you refuse to play your part in a social ritual, the backlash is real... even if you're being pushed into a role you don't fit.

Now, I'm not going to speak for veterans or military personnel. Of those I've asked, there are some who see this behavior as harmless, some who see it as a nice compliment, and some who actively hate it as it is just one more intrusion on their day-to-day life and privacy. However, I want folks out there to take a moment and ask why we started this social ritual. What was its purpose?

To support the troops, right? To let them know that, regardless of our opinions about the conflicts they were involved in that we understand the boots on the ground are fellow Americans, and that we value them.

It's a nice sentiment. However, I would suggest that if respecting and caring for our veterans is something that is near and dear to your heart that actions speak far louder than words. If you have money, or you can make donations of material or energy, consider some of the veteran-focused options at Charity Navigator. If that's outside your resources, then tune-in to politics both locally, and nationally. Use your vote and your voice to make it clear you want veterans' healthcare expanded, that you want their benefits honored, and perhaps even pay and retirement expanded. And pay attention to how the military is being used, and what conflicts they're being sent into, so that you can hold the government accountable.

Those kinds of actions will go a lot further than putting someone on the spot to say thank you, no matter how good your intentions might be.

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Neal Litherland
Neal Litherland
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Neal Litherland

Neal Litherland is an author, freelance blogger, and RPG designer. A regular on the Chicago convention circuit, he works in a variety of genres.

See all posts by Neal Litherland

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