"Thank you for your service!"
I hear the words and smile sheepishly and, inwardly, cringe a little.
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. Genuine words and sentiments truly touch one’s heart.
But, many veterans have shared that they often feel what I sometimes feel: awkward, weird, half embarrassed, a bit resentful, but — conflictingly — 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 often feel conflicted inside when someone says, "Thank you for your service." Many of us feel that we may not deserve thanks, that our service — which for most of us contained significant risks, sacrifices, or burdens — was also an opportunity and for me, a privilege.
We also are conflicted because many of us may feel that we did nothing very 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 so fully exposed to the gaping maw of extreme or extended danger.
But many vets also feel conflicted when receiving thanks for our service, because the words can seem and sometimes are so clearly hollow — society pressuring people to say these words or be seen as unpatriotic or on the fringe. Because it can be the social pressure forcing these words, they can come across sometimes as perfunctory and many of us have witnessed how lacking in substance and meaning they can be.
When I decided to leave active duty after seven years, I was shocked by the too often hollow thanks and lack of respect for and understanding of my talents, skills and experience my service had conferred upon me. 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."
The civilian threat -- always implied in any work place -- of being fired is substantively any different and somehow viewed as more moral? Really?
Too Few Only “Know” the Military From TV and Movies
Just as depictions on TV or in movies of frequent police shootouts on streets, stereotyped depictions of women, men, 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 Hollywood’s military, such scenes 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.
For four years, I spent underway at sea over 300 days each year. My last year was 331 days at sea on a destroyer 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, no privacy.
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 away and many months removed. 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, memos and written reports.
But I dealt with something more. You don't manage people into danger, you lead them into danger. For we always had the stress of training for war and occasionally practicing it for real.
Offer Understanding and Respect, Not Standard, Expected Words of Thanks
The vast majority of vets for most of their time in active service did not participate in any 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 real sacrifices, risks, and challenges that all military members faced, not just what is depicted by Hollywood.
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Joel L. A. Peterson is the national award-winning author of the novel, Dreams of My Mothers (Huff Publishing Associates, 2015).
-- 1st Place Winner, 2015 Readers' Favorite National Book Awards (Gold Award)
-- Book of the Year Award Winner, Foreword Reviews’ 2015 INDIEFAB Awards
“Compelling, candid, exceptionally well written, Dreams of My Mothers is a powerful read. Very highly recommended.”
— Midwest Book Review