This is what usually happens. I sit on my side of the airline cockpit and only give up personal information when asked. Sometimes, in the course of answering something else, I accidentally reveal that I was in the service. I’m in mid-sentence when the captain interrupts me and says, “Thank you for your service.” He blurts it out in the middle of what I’m saying. Almost without fail, this is a pilot with a civilian background. The needle screeches across the record and I have to respond.
I used to answer with, “It was my honor to serve.” This is what I believe. I am proud that I served. But over time, after many interruptions, I shortened it to, “You’re welcome.” It’s short and allows me to almost keep stride with what I was saying. Lately, when the captain barks it out like he has Tourette syndrome, I nod and continue what I was saying.
Why, Shmo, you’re an ungrateful jerk, you think. Partly true, but I’m not ungrateful. I feel appreciated. But the knee-jerk response when I “come out” with my military service seems insincere. It’s a bumper sticker. It’s a yellow ribbon magnet on your car. It makes me feel like a cartoon. At those moments, it doesn’t even matter if I’m sitting there.
Your expression of gratitude makes you feel better, not me. It makes me squirm.
I have a theory. I’m not the first one to have it. There’s a growing divide between civilians and those who serve in the military in this country. This growing divide is expressing itself in the civilian leadership of the nation. Fewer and fewer of our elected representatives have ever served in uniform. Members of congress and our executive branch send the military to war. As the divide grows, I believe it threatens the foundation of our form of government. I swore to support and defend the Constitution from all enemies foreign and domestic. You could say I’m a fan. I want to protect it. I believe it’s dangerous that the people who bleed have nothing in common with the people who send them downrange.
The draft ended in 1973. We’re an all volunteer military. I was a squadron commander of troops in combat. I believe that our current military is the best in the world. An all-volunteer group that kicks ass. But I fear that we’re creating a class that serves and a class that doesn’t. Like the Eloi and the Morlocks in the H. G. Wells’ novel The Time Machine. The Eloi live on the surface in a life of ease and the Morlocks live underground working their asses off. I’m afraid of the unintended consequences of the creation of an all volunteer military. Forty years isn’t that much time. I don’t think all the chickens have come home to roost.
Rote expression of appreciation is a symptom of this growing divide. I try to imagine a veteran of Iwo Jima thanking a veteran of D-Day and it makes me laugh. Everybody, at home and at war, had a part in defeating the Axis. Everybody served. Everybody sacrificed. The fact that so few people serve today has created a situation where civilians look at military people and see the “other.” And vice versa. There was no shared sacrifice post-9/11. People were told to go shopping or the terrorists win. I believe civilians feel guilty. They may even feel some guilt for the way veterans were treated during Vietnam. They get their guilt off their chest when they meet me. When I’m mid-sentence.
I watched an excellent and timely video this week by David Botti that was done for the BBC called “What Makes a Hero?” (Watch all 20 minutes if you have time.) At 4:40 into the video, there’s a Washington Post survey that says over 40 percent of veterans surveyed thought these “thank you’s” weren’t genuine. Even more troubling is the recent discovery that the military (your tax money) was paying the NFL for the pre-game military appreciation displays. Your own tax dollars being used to convince you to thank me. It’s like some kind of sick, self-licking ice cream cone that made money for the NFL. Twisted.
70 percent said they felt misunderstood. But at the same time, 70 percent felt like they were appreciated. I’ve been wrestling with this “thank you” concept personally. My fellow veterans demonstrate the same conflicted feelings.
So, I’m a cartoon that people can unburden themselves on. Along with being a cartoon, I’m one of only two types of vet. They believe I’m broken or a hero. I’m neither. I had one stranger on Facebook discount my opinions regarding some topic in the Middle East because, to her, I was only capable of rocking on the floor and moaning like Matt Damon on the bridge at the end of Private Ryan.
I’m not without sin. I stereotype civilians. I view them as mostly soft, unaware of their surroundings, and sleepwalking through daily life without an appreciation for the good things they have. So, civilian, did you like that characterization? I didn’t think so. It’d be absurd if I broke civilians into two camps: PhD’s or derelicts. It’s just as absurd as saying all veterans are either heroes or broken. All populations have a spectrum of people.
The good news is that the “hero or damaged” depiction of veterans is slowly changing. This article in the Military Times talks about an organization called Got Your 6. This organization is working to find ways for veterans to continue to serve in their communities. They’re also working with Hollywood to give more realistic portrayals of veterans in the media.
I can even empathize with what it feels like to be on the outside of the military. As someone who fought from the comfort of an air-conditioned cockpit, I was essentially a spectator, even when I was right in the thick of a fight. I was so much of a spectator, that at some point, I felt guilt. I talk about that here, and what I did about it.
I write stories about my military life. I write poems about it. I’m working on a book about some of my life in the service. Why all this writing? Well, I’m a narcissist-coated narcissist with narcissist filling. So, I’m my favorite subject.
But there’s another reason. I’m trying to bridge this gap between the military and the civilian worlds. It’s my way of continuing to serve. Feeble, maybe, but it’s my way. Call it a mission statement if you have to. I had a wing commander at Balad Air Base in Iraq. He told everyone at a meeting that we needed to go home and “tell our story.” I believe he was right.
I believe that telling straightforward, truthful, stories about the military is important. Are there heroes? Of course there are. Are there broken and damaged veterans? Yes, and they need our help. There are lots of organizations designed to help that can use your money and time.
But there are also other people. There are guys like Pawly who wrenches on airplanes. My operations battle-buddy Kerry who went to the war all four times with me. There’s Kent and Axe of the red belt weapons guys who loaded bombs and missiles. There are guys like Sonic who kept his airplane from skidding off the runway at Kandahar after his tire blew. There are guys like Ragin’ who had a hydraulic malfunction that failed his speed brakes open. He had to get the tanker to toboggan downhill so he could go fast enough to get gas. In the dark. If he didn’t get that gas, he would’ve had to eject in the mountains of Afghanistan. Are they heroes? Are they damaged? As near as I can tell, they’re functioning normally in society the way they’re supposed to. They did their job and they continue to do it well. But you won’t know what they did unless they tell you.
So, it’s complicated. Like real life. If you see me out in the yard mowing the lawn, am I an American supersonic hero? (I force my kids to call me this, but that’s another issue.) Am I a ticking time bomb with PTSD? Please consider the possibility that I’m just some dude mowing his lawn.
So what’re we going to do?
I’ll make you a promise. I promise to be more gracious when I’m thanked. They called me Angry Shmo a lot, so I’ll try to chill. More Happy Shmo.
I’m also going to keep writing about the military.
But you’ve got to quit thanking me like you got hit with an electric shock. Look at me like an individual. We need to treat each other with dignity and respect and like we’re unique. On a case-by-case basis. We’re not cardboard cutouts. We’re real. All of us. And we need to come together to keep our form of government alive. The idea of America is too precious to split apart. Red state, blue state. Left wing, right wing. The polarization and over-simplification has to stop. Whatever happened to E Pluribus Unum?
Oh, and one more thing. You’re welcome. It was my honor to serve. No shit.