I was raised in the South where politeness to strangers and casual acquaintances is nearly a religious practice, perhaps coming from the “an armed society is a polite society” feature of that culture. Ultimately it is churlish to be rude to folks who are trying to be polite and do what they think is right, and so every year about this time I struggle with the fairly recent phenomenon, I date it from right after the Gulf War, of people I don’t know thanking me for something I didn’t do for them. Because I’m a veteran.
I didn’t come from a military family. My father was a draftee. His father was a draftee. Skipping back a couple of generations virtually all the adult males in my family wore the butternut or gray of Virginia regiments (primarily the 24th and 60th) in the Confederate army. Going back further there are Revolutionary War vets. The point being my ancestors, my kinsmen, all answered their nation’s call when needed but they didn’t sign on for the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the various Indian Wars, the punitive expeditions into Mexico, etc. For some reason that I don’t completely understand, being a soldier is all I ever wanted to be. I enjoyed reading about Eddie Rickenbacker and Richard Bong and Stephen Decatur and Chesty Puller but none of those were ever for me. For me, infantry of the line, whether at Crecy and Agincourt or Cowpens or Monmouth or Marye’s Heights or Cemetery Ridge, was what enthralled me.
When I went to college it was for one solitary purpose: to get a commission. I chose the college I attended based on it having an Army ROTC program. I stayed in college because a commission was at the end of the trail. My biggest fear was being assigned to a branch other than infantry and I asked my ROTC detachment commander if he could please call the personnel command and ask them to make me an infantry officer. (As an aside, my father, who’d dropped out of school at 13 to go to work in the coalfields of southern West Virginia and had been a construction worker for years and had always told me and my brother, “Don’t be like me, stay in school, get good grades, go to college so you don’t have to be outside in the rain and the snow,” was at my commissioning. He said, “Son, don’t take this wrong because I’m damned proud of you but why did you want to go to college if you were going in the infantry?” Good question, that. There have been many nights in driving rain and sleet when I’ve reflected I could be doing the same thing if I were a hobo.)
The Army gave me a chance to see and do things a kid from Southside Virginia was not normally going to see. I was second in command of a training company at age 21. I guarded Rudolf Hess at Spandau Prison. I traded US cigarettes for Russian uniform items with Russian border guards. I got into fights alongside men I knew had my back and who knew I had theirs–and I’ve punched people in the face for real and I’ve been punched in the face for real. I’ve been through grueling training, subsisting on one meal a day. I’ve gone for five days with four hours sleep. I’ve gone for the Biblical forty days without changing clothes or showering. I’ve led platoons and commanded companies and I’m still in touch with about half of the soldiers in those units. I’ve jumped out of perfectly good airplanes into the night. I’ve read a full colonel his rights and made him answer my very uncomfortable questions despite our disparity in rank. Whenever I see Blade Runner, I know exactly what Rutger Hauer is talking about in his famous monologue:
What I got from my experience is knowing the meaning and value of loyalty, of sticking with friends no matter what because they are friends, of living by “every brother valiant and every sister virtuous,” or, as my Old Man would have said, “ya dance with them what brung ya.” I learned to loyally serve men I didn’t care for–within the context of their actions being moral, legal, and ethical even if not wise or even smart–and from that, I learned to appreciate great leadership by truly talented leaders. I know what self-sacrifice is. From learning to be the last man to eat and the last guy to get to sleep and the first guy up the hill and through the door, I learned a helluva lot about being a decent husband and father. I learned to do the best you can do at all times, but especially when no one is watching or would care if you didn’t, and I learned not to whine about not getting recognition when others did. I learned to man up and take my ass-chewings, deserved or undeserved, using the mantra of “don’t complain, don’t explain.” I learned not to dwell on yesterday and coulda-woulda-shoulda but to suck it up and realize today and tomorrow are yours to shape. I learned to hate “we’ve always done it that way” and anyone who blames other people for their own failings. I learned that no matter what the Army is, it isn’t just a job.
So when I flinch when encountering the “thanks for your service” it is because I didn’t join the Army to have people I scarcely know thank me and I feel guilty because I gained a helluva lot out of the bargain. Any thanks owed is to an Army that took an immature kid looking at a future of chopping tobacco or working in a furniture mill and made him into a good family man and productive citizen…and gave him enough stories to entertain his kids for years while boring his wife senseless.
On a final note, I had the extraordinary experience of having a retired colonel named Dandridge “Mike” Malone spend time with my company (you can find references to him online). He was a full-time commercial fisherman and part-time leadership consultant to the Army Chief of Staff and he was with us to write about a couple of Army experiments: the Light Infantry Division (J-series MTOE or you purists) and the COHORT manning system. The division structure survived, the manning system did not. Mike Malone was a legend in the Ranger community. He’d established the first Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol company in Vietnam, that would be C Company, 75th Infantry that supported 1st Field Force, Vietnam, and at some point earned the name “Mad Mike.” He was a guy for whom people would do anything to get the chance to work for. He recorded what is basically a poem in blank verse called “Soldier.” It is dated now in a lot of the particulars, though I daresay the sentiments are universal and timeless (if you joined the Army before 1972/3, be prepared for a big helping of nostalgia). It might be a bit long for your attention span so if you want to go to the punchline it is at 32:38. This is why I really don’t need anyone to thank me for my service.