It’s probably happened to most of us in uniform – a free beer, dinner, or even a surprise upgrade to business class. Americans wish to support a random vet by saying ‘thank you for your service.’
It’s well received, and I am grateful, but it makes me a little uncomfortable, because I don’t always know what to say. The source of my discomfort is a simple matter of sacrifice.
I don’t feel like I’ve done that. Sure, I’ve been away from my family for years of my life, endured searing heat, loneliness, and dust that can only be described as a living thing. As a medical officer, I have seen things that I would rather not remember, much less describe.
I’ve never lost a limb, or my life. But I know people who have. I’m not serving anymore, but I still have friends in harm’s way. There are so many others who deserve your thanks more than I do.
A few years ago, I delivered a Veteran’s Day speech to my local high school auditorium, which I thought went well – I stood before the group of parents and teenagers in my captain’s class-A’s and told of the service of men barely teenagers themselves, and made a joke or two about the desert heat.
Afterwards, I was approached by an ancient soldier in WW2 dress greens, buttons tarnished. He shook my hand, and without a word, reached up slowly and carefully to lift my lapel. I know he saw one ribbon I wore there, stacked onto a dozen others that feel more like boy-scout merit badges, so modern-day generals can wear giant stacks of ribbons like some Latin American dictator. I got my bronze star for meritorious service in combat, but I certainly didn’t do anything courageous to get it. Like most others, I spent much of my time inside the relative safety of “the wire.”
The old staff sergeant smoothed both my lapels and patted them down, and took time to feel the polyester-wool fabric, likely different from his own wool uniform, which was faded and eaten by moths once or twice. That’s when I saw the three small ribbons he wore.
A World War 2 victory medal, a Pacific campaign ribbon, and the bronze star – with four oak leaf clusters and a tiny metal “V,” black with age. He had been awarded the medal 5 times - for VALOR.
“Thank you for your service,” the old man said in a gravelly voice, not much louder than a whisper.
How could a simple “You’re welcome” suffice? He looked to be more than eighty, but he was made from molds long broken, from material tougher than anything seen in decades.
“And I thank you for yours,” was all I could reply without choking. I wasn’t worthy to shine this man’s boots.
My speech that day had been about a man named Frank W. Buckles, the last surviving veteran of World War I. Since then day, we have lost him to eternity. Within a few decades, we will lose more old warriors, and the current ones, if they are lucky, will become the old.
Please take the time to share or retweet this - but more importantly, take the time to thank a soldier, new or old.
They (we) thank you for your support.