You may have noticed that this year's Veteran's Day was a little different. Post-traumatic stress syndrome has become part of the lingua franca. Few informed citizens deny the psychological impact of deployment on returning veterans. At the same time, a new movie, Thank You for Your Service, is opening in theaters nationwide, dramatizing the experience of several soldiers' difficult reintegration to civilian life. Many civilian Americans feel strongly about honoring our vets. But our heightened awareness of the deeper impact of deployment has taken the most accessible expression of gratitude—thanking a veteran—and cast doubt on its efficacy. This Veteran's Day was different because a lot of us are starting to wonder if a simple "thank you" might be worse than meaningless.
Veterans, for their part, have long expressed discomfort with these hat tips of appreciation. "It can be frustrating to be thanked for my military service for a few reasons, but often it's because there's no easy, conversational response," Kevin Ball, a United States Army veteran, told Task and Purpose, a veteran-focused site. "I can't just say, 'You're welcome.'"
"When asked how someone should thank me for my service, I respond simply, learn the constitution, get informed, and vote accordingly," said Brock Young, another U.S. Army veteran. Rather than a passing "thank you for your service," another gesture that U.S. Navy reservist Marissa Cruz advocates is "Talk to me. Ask me what my job entails, what I enjoy about the military or why I choose to serve." Carl Forsling, a Marine vet, said, "The biggest thing people can do is do something, not say something."
Context matters as well. One veteran who went from war zone to university seminar room—from combat to campus—discovered that the transition to such privilege jarred him. One day a classmate expressed gratitude for his service. The vet (who remained anonymous) recalled his reaction: "I was just back and I was in one of those moods. So, I said, oh yeah, what do you do to support the troops? ... Do you buy a bumper sticker? Do you join a Facebook group? I was upset with the whole thing. You know, hearing about my people killing themselves. One of my friends killed himself, you know. Just hearing these people say they support the troops—when they don't do anything actually."
Sociological research indicates that the individuals cited above reflect a sentiment common among recent veterans. "Evidence suggests that veterans are more often ambivalent about expressions of gratitude for service," Lance Brendan Young writes in the Journal of Veterans Studies. He explains how many veterans are suspicious of "random strangers" thanking them, not so much out of perceived insincerity as from a sense of being objectified or depersonalized.
In the comparatively rare instance when the person saying thank you is able to demonstrate on-the-ground familiarity with what service entails, the response can be different. Brendan quotes one Navy veteran saying that "a veteran thanking another veteran is different." But when it comes to civilians, "people feel obligated to thank us for stuff they have no clue about because it's socially accepted." Such an unavoidable gap in understanding—a distance that's made to seem closer by the accepted social convention of two easy words—renders the gesture meaningless, if not emotionally detrimental, for many vets.
It feels altruistic to say thank you. So, naturally, it's strange to have this friendly—and often genuinely expressed—gesture questioned. But remember that there are few social interactions in which the psychological complexity of the experience that prompts the civilian "thank you" is so thoroughly disconnected from what a civilian can possibly appreciate.
Sometimes the soldier doesn't even know what's going on. One person I know, a Navy reservist, returned from a nine-month tour of duty in Africa, where he mostly sat at a desk doing math and making maps. He found it odd when people thanked him—For what? Staring at a computer all day? But then the stress of reintegration mounted, and, one morning, he found himself suffering a panic attack in the cereal aisle of a grocery store. At that point he felt that "thank you for your service" was—however inadvertent—more than odd: It was an insult. "Thank you" was pointless when life was coming apart at the seams, cereal boxes were taunting him, and none of it made the least sense.
This holiday season millions of civilians will encounter thousands of veterans—most of them in airports. As a final reminder of why it might be a good idea to hold back on the "thank you" and ponder an alternative response, consider the insight of James Kelly, an active duty marine, writing in In Military magazine: "The simple psychology behind [opposing a thank you] is this: we don't feel like we did anything special. This is a universal feeling among veterans."
It's an arresting comment, reminding us that what we ask our soldiers to do—subsume all sense of self in an unimaginably dangerous collective mission—runs so counter to the experience of being an individual in civil society, that perhaps the most appropriate thing to do is make eye contact, nod, and quietly appreciate the nature of that sacrifice.