Lest we forget, almost 10 percent of the U.S. population have served in the military—some 21 million men and women. It can take national days that honor veterans such as Veterans Day and Memorial Day to remind us of their service, but for veterans, our brief “thank you for serving” can be too fleeting.
In an article in The New York Times, “Please Don’t Thank Me for My Service,” journalist Matt Richtel, who interviews several veterans, says:
To some recent vets—by no stretch all of them—the thanks comes across as shallow, disconnected, a reflexive offering from people who, while meaning well, have no clue what soldiers did over there or what motivated them to go, and who would never have gone themselves nor sent their own sons and daughters. To these vets, thanking soldiers for their service symbolizes the ease of sending a volunteer army to wage war at great distance—physically, spiritually, economically.
Veterans often return only to feel disconnected from the society they served. Unemployment among veterans is decreasing, but it is still higher than the national average. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is common: Between 10 percent to 30 percent of veterans develop PTSD after returning home. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, as many as 20 veterans take their own life each day.
The word “hero” after the atrocities veterans have witnessed is sometimes unwelcome. Other veterans, like Jarrod Chlapowski, say they feel undeserving of thanks. Writing in The Huffington Post, he says:
The ‘thank yous’ [have become] less awkward, though I have never felt like I deserved them. My service completed roughly as expected, experiencing nothing more dangerous than the plane ride home on leave.
There is simply not enough understanding between those who have served and those who haven’t, and a quick “thank you” will not bridge that gap. What can?
Speaking to veterans about their experiences—if they are open to talking—goes some way. In The New York Times article, one veteran says he “appreciates thanks from someone who makes an effort to invest in the relationship and experience.” This is echoed by Chlapowski in The Huffington Post. Speaking of his comrades he says: “They know you appreciate them. They need you to learn about them. Tell them that you will.”
There are many ways we can do this. Ask a VA hospital how you can help—perhaps you can provide company to sick or injured veterans. Likewise, volunteer at hospice—many individuals at the end of their life want to talk about their experiences, and 40 percent of people in hospice are veterans. Provide a comforting ear. Join a program like Connected Warriors to teach yoga or meditation to veterans for free. Offer free childcare to local parents who serve in the military, or other help to veterans in your community. Talk to veterans, and listen to them.
It is not that we shouldn’t say “thank you” as Phillip Carter, an Iraq veteran and Director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security, explains in an article he penned for The Washington Post:
Whether civilians fully realize it or not, the simple message of thanks sends a powerful message to veterans—that the nation will take responsibility for our actions in her service. In some small way, this collective acceptance of responsibility helps veterans to transfer some of the psychological burdens of wartime service to society. Such gratitude will not eradicate combat stress nor address every veteran’s experience. However, these small gestures do make a difference.
It’s just that there is so much more we can do to serve those who served.
Helen Avery is a Section Editor at Wanderlust Media, working on the Vitality, Wisdom, and Wellness channels on wanderlust.com and YOGANONYMOUS. She is a journalist, writer, yoga teacher, and full-time dog walker of Millie.