I served just under six years in the US Army, from October of 1985 to August of 1991. I did so voluntarily. I was paid for my efforts. The Army helped pay my college tuition. Like pretty much everyone else I knew who served, I had no altruistic view in mind when deciding to enter the service. Please don’t thank me.
I had a variety of objectives in mind when I decided to serve. I wanted to see the world. I wanted to do something besides sit behind a desk. I wanted to get the hell out of Alabama. That alone would have been enough incentive for me to join, but I was also offered the opportunity to fly helicopters. The decision was a no-brainer.
I knew the risks of what I was getting into. I knew how much (or how little) I would be paid for assuming them. But I did it anyway, because from my perspective at the time, the benefits outweighed the costs. It had nothing at all to do with the notion that I was performing some great service for my country.
In 1985, there was no surge of gratitude directed at veterans such as is common today. Serving in the military did not instantly bestow glory and honor upon a soul just for their having enlisted. The country still hadn’t gotten over its disgrace at what it had asked its service members to do in Vietnam. And it had drafted those guys. If you want to thank a vet for his service, find one who served in Vietnam or Korea. They didn’t volunteer to fight those wars, to kill and die for no apparent reason except the country told them to. They deserve every bit of our guilt assuaging gratitude.
When someone who hasn’t served thanks a vet for their service, what they’re really trying to do is assuage their own guilt at not having served. I get thanked more from guys than women. Maybe the guys think they’re less manly somehow for not having volunteered to do the military’s bidding. Hogwash. There is no particular manliness required of doing most jobs in the military these days. And anyone is as courageous as they have to be. Ask the regular Joes who we celebrate for heroism whether they think they’re anything except ordinary guys thrust into extraordinary circumstances.
When I got back from the first Gulf War, it was clear to me that things had changed. I was cheered in airports, just because I had a uniform on. I thought it all absurd. I was just doing the job I had signed up to do. I got out after that war because I knew, with the Cold War over, it represented the first of many unnecessary adventures the military would likely be asked to perform in the coming years. I reevaluated things and realized that I was adamantly opposed to the idea of killing people who were no threat to me or the US, so I got out.
But I don’t need to be thanked for any of it. It was not an act of altruism that I served. When you thank me to assuage your own fuzzy, amorphous guilt, it just transfers your guilt to me, because I already got thanked for my service through all the benefits, material but mostly otherwise, service bestowed on me. Don’t make me carry the burden of your guilt around. Don’t thank me for my service.