Beyond the Uniform and Simple Thanks

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Photo courtesy of Joel L. A. Peterson

"Thank you for your service!" I hear the words and smile sheepishly and cringe inwardly.

Every Veteran's Day I hear this and see it posted to my Facebook wall. Don't get me wrong, I'm very grateful for all the many friends and acquaintances who are truly generous and genuine with their thanks.

But, many veterans have shared that they feel what I feel: awkward, weird, half embarrassed, a bit resentful, but also proud.

The Conflicted Feelings
I can only speak for myself, but I am also informed by the many conversations I have had with other veterans and friends from my active duty days. Many vets feel very conflicted inside when someone says, "Thank you for your service." Many of us feel that we don't deserve any thanks, that our "service" was an opportunity, not an obligation or burden.

We also are conflicted because many of us feel that we did nothing worthy of society's gratitude while serving. The military is colossally large, with many multitudes more serving in support roles than walking point. Although we know that without all that support, that warrior walking point may never have gotten there, or worse, may never come back, it still feels awkward to be offered the same gratitude as those who stood fully exposed to the gaping maw of danger.

Hollow Thanks and Misconceptions
But many vets also feel conflicted when receiving thanks for our service, because the words seem so hollow. They come across so often as perfunctory and many of have witnessed how lacking in substance and meaning they are.

When I had decided to leave active duty after seven years, I was shocked by the hollow thanks and complete lack of respect for and understanding of my talents, skills and experience. Many job interviews started with those hollow, expected words of thanks.

But then they would be followed by such statements as, "We don't consider your experience as a Navy officer as management experience, because you gave orders and your subordinates were legally required to follow them or get court martialed. That just doesn't apply at our company."

Really??

The threat -- always implied in any work place -- of being fired is any different and somehow viewed as more moral? Really?

Reality Is not What's Seen on TV and Movies
Just as depictions on TV or in movies of frequent police shootouts on streets, stereotyped depictions of women and minorities, or depictions of screaming matches in courtrooms and offices and restaurants are very rarely reflected in reality, so also is this true for the military.

In my four years as a midshipman (cadet), seven years of active duty and eight more years of reserve duty, not once did anyone ever say the words, "I'm giving you a direct order!" But in the movies, such words are ubiquitous.

All organizations have hierarchy and levels of authority who have the power to reward and punish. Because of the military's special role and the extreme conditions in which it must carry out this role, its organizational structure is designed for efficiency and transparency. Its hierarchy is more apparent, with authority levels and rewards and punishments open to public view and oversight.

But otherwise it is like all human organizations, which must be managed, communicated through and among, and missions and functions met. Civilian companies and organizations with more veiled hierarchies and opaque authority still have the power to reward and punish -- just not usually open to public scrutiny.

Leadership not Management
What I wanted to explain to the person in my job interview was that my job as a Navy officer was much harder than a typical corporate manager's.

All of my subordinates were assigned to me. Not one was chosen and hired by me. I had no power to hire or fire. I could not give raises or promotions or bonuses. I could not award extra vacation days. I couldn't even induce a person to quite, because that's desertion and that is a felony.

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Photo courtesy of Joel L. A. Peterson

For four years, I spent underway at sea over 300 days each year and I and my subordinates worked and lived in what would be considered appalling conditions by civil society. We worked around the clock -- every day -- taking shifts. We had no restaurants, movie theaters, no churches -- no respite, no break.

And yet, without most of the usual tools and levers of management that I was later taught in my MBA classes -- bonuses, salaries, incentives -- and taken for granted by my job interviewer, I had to create teamwork, motivation and excellence. I had to resolve conflicts, counsel and support and sometimes hold grown men who needed to cry because their lives were falling apart thousands of miles and many months away. I had to be an excellent manager as I had all the challenges and functions of any corporate manager -- budgets and paperwork, HR and supply chains.

But I dealt with something more. You don't manage people into battle, you lead them into battle for we always had the stress of training for war and occasionally practicing it for real.

Offer Understanding and Respect, Not Wooden Words of Thanks
Most vets for most of their time in active service did not participate in active combat. Though words of genuine gratitude are appreciated by veterans, for many those words can create conflicted feelings.

Rather than unthinkingly saying the words, "Thanks for your service," I might suggest that people try to find the time and the opportunity to truly engage in conversation. Ask questions in a way that's inviting rather than stereotypical.

Time and understanding are real gifts. The best show of gratitude may be showing a vet you care enough to take the time to understand him or her and gain a true appreciation of the many challenges that all military members faced, not just the warrior walking point.

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Joel L. A. Peterson is a veteran and the award-winning author of the novel, "Dreams of My Mothers" (Huff Publishing Associates, March, 2015).

"Compelling, candid, exceptionally well written, "Dreams of My Mothers" is a powerful read that will linger in the mind and memory long after it is finished. Very highly recommended."
-- Midwest Book Review

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