To encourage and fortify relationships between military service members, veterans, their families, their friends, and their Country; to nurture the path of communication for everyone, ensuring that no one is alone or left behind; and proving that we have not, are not, and will never forget the nobility of their sacrifices.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

"I Remember"

I’m not really sure that I like hearing people thank me for my military service.  It always sounds strange, if nothing else.  What do you say when a stranger walks up to you and says, “thank you for fighting for my freedom?”  Do you say you’re welcome?  It seems silly.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of these remarks in the least.  People want to acknowledge veterans, which I certainly appreciate, but there has to be a better way to do it.  Saying, “thank you for my freedom” is clunky, however genuine, and my response, a hesitant, “you’re welcome” seems equally out-of-place.  Thankful for what?  That you have no idea?

There are things that should be better known about veterans.  Frankly, I don’t think I’ve heard anybody talk about them before, which could be part of the problem.  First, while we all enjoy hearing somebody acknowledge our service, part of us is thinking, “you have no idea what you’re thanking me for.”  Another part of us is somewhat embarrassed, since not one of us, when under fire, running for cover, or rushing to the aid of a fallen comrade is thinking about our country, patriotism, or freedom.  We’re thinking about the guys next to us or the guy on the ground and praying to God that they all live to come home.  We’re also praying for our own safety.

Yet another part of us feels that we don’t deserve the thanks, even though we enjoy it.  The ones who deserve it never lived long enough to hear it.  You may say, “thank you,” but we’re thinking “no, thank THEM – even though they can’t hear you now.”  You thank us, but in our heart of hearts, not one of us – the living – believe we’ve done nearly enough.

We deployed as cohesive units, dysfunctional little families sent out into strange places where we endured a myriad of attacks and lost some of our friends and comrades.  Though we all know that war invariably sends home fewer than arrived, we view the holes in the ranks with a degree of personal failure.  None of us did enough.

Then we get angry at people for being ignorant and trying to approach us with gratitude we don’t feel we deserve.  Some of us accuse you of being condescending, though I don’t think any of you are.  You just don’t know what else to say, and we don’t have a clue what to say in return.  Point at some graves and say “thank them?”  It seems disrespectful – not only to you, but also to the many we’ve seen broken and fallen.

There are demons in all of us saying, “If you have all you limbs, you didn’t do enough.  If you had bullets left, you didn’t shoot enough.  If you got out before the war was ended and won, you didn’t serve enough.  If you lived, you didn’t sacrifice enough, so you don’t deserve any thanks.”  Some people call it survivor’s guilt.  I just call it reality.  The veteran experience is one of intense pride but marred with equally intense grief.  We made it, but others did not, so we must not have given it our fullest.  “Thank you” is hard to hear, and harder still to answer.

How about saying this: “I remember.”  That solemn statement is enough.  We don’t expect you to fully understand what a war is like, which is fine.  We served so you don’t have to know – ever.  But we do want you to remember.  Remember that there are only two days in the year when veterans, both living and dead receive any unified recognition for their service and sacrifices.  Remember that if you put up a flag, you really shouldn’t take it down when the “holiday” is over.  Remember that there are thousands of families that feel the pang of a missing loved one every day; not just Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day. 

Remember that there are men and women who did things and will never be the same.  Remember that there are generations of broken bodies and hearts who will forever be convinced that they should have done more.  Remember that the living veterans will never forget the faces of the dead – and wonder why some survived and others did not.  Remember that this country and the freedoms we all enjoy aren’t innate; they were purchased at high cost.  We didn’t purchase them, not really, but we fought alongside those who did.  And we remember them more than anybody.  They’ll haunt us until we join them…

Copyright © 2010, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved


Christine said...

Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I always thought that it was just awkward for people to receive acknowledgment in general. But I am thankful and I do understand, as an Army brat, a Coast Guard wife and now an Army mother I am fully aware of what you sacrificed. I have been thanking Vets for years whenever I can identify them, specially Vietnam Vets. I remember feels inadequate, and does no fully express my feelings. How about "I'm grateful" for your service?

Ben Shaw said...

Grateful works decently, but consider this: the significance of remembering is that it's essentially a vow to never forget and never reduce oneself to apathy - the greatest sin of this current generation.

CI-Roller Dude said...

I came up with a list awhile back...a list of things not to ask a war vet, or things not to say....
I still get some of the same quesitons:
1.) How many people did you kill?
2.) Did you "win" any medals?"
3.) What was "it" like?
4.) How long were you there?
5.) Do you have PTSD?
6.) ETC...

Can't say, nope,it sucked, too long, how I answer.

Michele said...

I may only be a civilian but I genuinely care about our veterans and our troops. I am thankful for their service. I come from a family of proud veterans: WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and OIF. While they served in those war zones, their main thoughts were of surviving and keeping their buddies alive. They all came home changed...war changes everyone involved including the families. Some of their wounds are visible but most are not. They deal with things no one else can understand. No one has the right to say their pain is greater than another' one understands but the person dealing with it. Other veterans may be able to help but even they can not fully understand each other's pain, as each individual deals with and internalizes situations differently. And yet with all of their pain, having other people acknowledge their service and THANKING them gives them validation. I also have many friends who have served in OIF and OEF who are touched by people saying thank you, we're proud of you, welcome home and so on! While I believe the point you were trying to make in your article is that we must always remember the fallen, I fear that your article may make people question whether they should approach and thank a veteran. I fear that they will now remain silent because they are no longer sure if their expression of gratitude will be taken in the right way. Yet, I'm certain that any veteran who has felt unappreciated would say please do not remain silent...we need to hear those words! I'm sorry it makes you feel uncomfortable but if I say nothing then it appears I do not care. I'd rather take the chance that my words will be seen as meaningless then to miss the opportunity to express my gratitude for that individual's time, efforts, and sacrifices. I thank you for your service, I wish you good health; both of mind and body, and I will always remember!! Those are not just empty words...

CJ said...

Ben, I almost completely disagree with you.

Today, I was forced to fly to Pennsylvania in uniform because I couldn't pry myself away from my desk and telephone in time to change for the trip. I HATE flying in uniform because it always causes all the "thank you's" you're talking about here.

I don't like it because I'm a little embarrassed by the comment. I get paid to do what I do. I volunteered to do what I do. I've been doing it for 16 years, so if I didn't like it I would have quit by now. But, I always smile and return the comment with a simple "thank you".

I thank them for even caring enough to approach a complete stranger in uniform without knowing if they've deployed or not and thanking them for at least being willing to put their lives on the line for this country or others. I'm a little embarrassed, but I'm also appreciative that they notice.

Who are we to question someone's intent in thanking a Soldier in uniform? For some, that brush with troops in an airport or a highway rest area is their only chance to ever even see a Soldier. Many of those people have sent letters, care packages, and prayers to troops.

I remember makes no sense to me. If someone came up to me and said "I remember", I'd ask what they remember. Did they remember to bring their ticket? Did they remember where they were going? Did they remember they left their little doggie in the car when they left home? What do you remember?

Why are we being so selfish in questioning others who tell us thank you? We're just people, nothing special. We, like firemen, policemen, EMTs and others just do a job that is very stressful and may lead to a possible death if something goes wrong. But, so do coal miners, oil rig workers, flight attendants, and overnight cashiers at gas stations.

I agree that most of don't feel like we deserve the thanks. After all, we're well paid, well equipped, get so many days off when we're not deployed for holidays, passes, and leave, and we get discounts almost everywhere we shop. Sometimes, there are even people who will pay for our meals and never reveal themselves. I've never gotten angry at someone saying thank you to me.

Unknown said...

As a civilian I am grateful for this post for two reasons. First, because I always want to convey my respect when I meet someone serving our Country, but am not sure what to say. Secondly, the comments prove that amongst prior and current military personnel, you don't agree on exactly what should be said either.
What I think can be agreed upon is that SOMETHING needs to be said. There needs to be some kind of exchange.
Yes CJ, everyone volunteers, and gets paid to do their job when they join up. You might even feel like you get more from the relationships and experiences volunteering for this job, than any other, but it's not just you who "volunteers" is it? Your sacrifices affect your entire family in a way most jobs do not. When I see someone in uniform, I can't help but think about all of the people who love them, and miss them, so when I say "Thank You" I am not limiting my Thanks to you, or your buddies, but extend them to the mother's, father's, wives, husbands, and children who wait for at home while you are at "work."
At the same time, I wish there was some way I could relate in a single random meeting; I will remember, and never forget those who did not make it back into the arms of their loved ones, and will be eternally missed.
Words are important and powerful. I have corresponded with far to many deployed soldiers who feel "forgotten about" by the American public, which makes me believe something needs to be said as often as possible, whenever possible. We know from CI Roller Dude what NOT to say.... but what DO we say?

CJ said...

Kristina, there is nothing - NOTHING - wrong with just saying "Thank You". We may not feel worthy of those words, but they are deeply meaningful and appreciated. Don't let anyone tell you that "Thank You" is not good enough. Keep doing what you're doing. We get the picture. Well, most of us do.

Unknown said...

CJ I still say, "Thank You" but am concerned that the words aren't enough, or that they are slowly loosing meaning. For example, the words "I am sorry" are used frequently when the speaker is not sincerely sorry. It is a reflex phrase people use when frustrated.

For me personally, I wish there were words with more meaning and power to illustrate how beholden I am.