Don’t thank me for my service, ask me about it.

A candid photo of the author, taken by a friend during his deployment in Afghanistan in 2014.

As I write this I am revisiting photos of my deployment that I’ve nested (hidden) in my hard drive. My tiny digital “suitcase of memories,” I call it. Like luggage it is carried with me everywhere, and opened and used when I need it. While I reminisce, I think of how Dickens said it best: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” 

I wasn’t always as perplexed as I am now whenever someone says, “Thank you for your service.” When discussing possible responses, my lieutenant, who had never deployed before, gave the recommendation, “You reply with ‘Thank you for your support.’ They’re the ones coming up to you, someone they don’t even know. You should always respect that.” Contrarily, my sergeant, who had deployed three times, first replied with a laugh, then said, “The way I do it, whenever someone thanks me I say, ‘No, please don’t thank me. But you can ask me about it.’”

My job in the military was a motor transport operator, a logistical operation rather than combat related. This job, and others where combat is not the primary function, is unflatteringly referred to in military circles as “person other than grunt.” A colloquial term used to describe a non-infantry service member. Because my job operated as “combat support,” it was assumed that I would never leave the confines of the base, engage the enemy or see the unfiltered realities of war. This was not my experience.

This is an M1120 HEMTT load-handling system. It is used by the U.S. Army to transport equipment and armament.

I was deployed to Afghanistan in 2014. At this time, my unit’s mission was to assist in the closure of forward operating bases and ensure the safe transportation of sensitive cargo back to Bagram Air Field. In the words of my LT, “We are closing out Afghanistan.” I was a part of the last combat convoys out of American bases such as Airborne, Shank, Lightning and Ghazni. These bases, which had existed since the onset of the war were now going to be handed over to the Aghan government.

The sunset on Oct. 21 2014, the last night U.S. troops were stationed on Forward Operating Base Shank, Afghanistan before control was handed to the Afghan government.

In my time there I never once fired my weapon, but there were many instances where I should have. Three out of four of my unit’s convoy escort teams were fired upon by the enemy. I was attached to different companies within my battalion for a variety of mission specific duties to include the Afghan presidential ballot recount.

I saw and participated in the removal of U.S. personnel, equipment and armament. I saw that same equipment and armament I helped deliver back to Bagram be destroyed because it was cheaper to do so rather than send it back to the U.S.

I witnessed civilian deaths, powerless to do anything to prevent it.

I witnessed the removal of our military might and influence from the bases we left behind that were the only thing standing between Afghan civilians and the Taliban.

I lie awake at night stuck in contemplative thought about that year. My thoughts range from deciding if what I did was or wasn’t special, to trying to convince myself that my participation in the war was wrong. I ponder if what I did was worth the cost.

Was the damage to this window caused by a rock, or a bullet? To this day, the author does not know.

The cost is the 6 years of my life, the memories I keep away, the physical toll on my body and the moral injury incurred. Ironically, these injuries, memories and experiences are what allow me to write this and share it with you all. It is part of the reason why I made it to a place like Vassar. 

For me, personally, saying, “Thank you for your service” has become an empty platitude used by uncomfortable people who aren’t interested in getting to know you. Granted, I have to acknowledge that there are those who have some connection to the military and those who are genuine but when I hear it said to me, I think to myself, “Are you aware of what you are thanking me for?” First my experiences in Afghanistan are a source of guilt and remorse. I think about the unnecessary civilian deaths and those of good friends that were simply moving things from point A to point B. That is something that I have to live with for the rest of my life. To be thanked for being part of a war that feeds into the military-industrial-congressional complex is disturbing to me. Second, the phrase reminds me of the chasm that exists between civilians and the military. Being thanked reinforces my belief that you have no idea about the nature and reality of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If a person did have an idea then they would know that thanks are inappropriate. Lastly I sometimes doubt the sincerity and gratitude of the phrase. It feels like something that needs to be said to absolve you of your own ignorance, supposed good character, or patriotic “support” for our troops.

In the background, a controlled detonation outside the perimeter of Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan.

To use the phrase as though it is “politically correct” or the right thing to say is absurd. The military should always be viewed in a critical light. Let me be the one to share something I’ve learned: Not all veterans are heroes. The military is just like any other professional organization:Veterans are not a monolithic group.

This isn’t to say I do not appreciate when civilians go out of their way to thank a veteran. Acknowledgement of our service is one thing. I just urge those who thank veterans to be cognizant of what you are thanking us for. Not all veterans served in a combat zone. Not all veterans who sign up in a combat job see any action when they deploy. I say this because, in my experience, non-combat related jobs are more of the norm than one would think. In fact, logistics is the lifeblood of any military. As the adage says, “An Army marches on its stomach.”

This personal analysis is in no way meant to devalue or belittle anyone’s service because they either did or did not deploy to a combat area. In my experience, I have yet to meet any other veteran who feels like what they did was any better than the countless other veterans who served. We all volunteered, we all sacrificed a part of our lives, holidays and birthdays with family. We even give up our personal autonomy. We drilled our bodies as well as our minds into being part of something greater than ourselves. Collectively, we all went through the rigors, trials, and “civilian breakdown” of basic combat training.

In making this request to not be thanked, I speak for myself. I do not in any way shape or form claim to speak for all veterans. I speak from my own experiences. However, I would bet that anyone who has experienced the horrors of war and those who have the personal courage and presence of mind to evaluate and analyze the war they served in was truly about would understand and agree with this request.

So if you’d like to show your appreciation but want to avoid the cliché, what’s the solution? This veteran recommends the following alternatives to “Thank you for your service.” Note that these may not work for every veteran.

For me, I prefer you ask me about my experience. What was my job in the military? What was it like? Take a vested interest in talking with a veteran, get to know them as just another person first. This helps with our social integration and for some like me help with the processing we must do to come to terms with our experiences. Be part of those allies who help destroy the anonymity and stereotypes we feel when we return to civilian life. Don’t thank someone for their service because it’s ostensibly the right thing to do. Educate yourself on the issues that veterans face. Advocate for a veteran if and when they need help. Befriend a veteran; they might be a valuable resource of life experience. And never feel bad if a veteran doesn’t feel like talking about their service. For many, opening up is the hardest thing to do. But if we do, don’t judge—empathize, listen. Be part of the collective suffering we all endured and be part of the collective healing all Americans must start doing. Lastly, go vote. Make your voice heard at the ballot box. Challenge the ideas and rhetoric that sent people like myself and my brothers and sisters to distant lands. Because if not for democracy, what the hell did I fight for? 

All photos courtesy of Romario Ortiz

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