Why You Shouldn’t Thank a Veteran This Memorial Day Weekend
I was recently discussing the word “inspirational” with a friend of mine. As wheelchair users, we both hear this word way too often, usually being used to describe something we have done. We both agreed that if we are breaking down stereotypes, advocating for others in our jobs, or curing cancer, then the word seems appropriate. Alas, it is more often used when we are doing normal, everyday activities, like running errands, waiting in line for coffee, or simply mustering the courage to actually leave the house (gasp!).
My daughter is five years old, and she has always known Mommy in a wheelchair. Because of this, she instinctively learned from an early age how to act and what to say to make others feel normal, regardless of their abilities. With Memorial Day approaching, I started thinking about how to teach her this same comfortable decorum with our veterans. How do I help her understand the significance of their service? How can a child from a non-veteran home comprehend the sacrifices that are made by military families across our country on a daily basis? What is the right thing for her to say to our veterans?
As an inspirational speaker, I spend a lot of time in airports. These business trips are my life’s calling; I want to use my unexpected outdoor activities to encourage people not to limit themselves or anyone else. If they are inspired along the way by my normal actions as well, then so be it. But as I roll through the terminals in my camouflage spoke covers, I am often stopped by a different phrase that catches me off guard every time. “Thank you for your service.” The first time a woman patted my arm and made the statement, I was confused. As she walked away, I looked down at my Old Navy sweatshirt with horrified eyes as I made the connection. She saw the young woman in the wheelchair, misread my shirt, and assumed my favorite Mossy Oak hunting pattern on my wheels equated to my being a wounded warrior.
Now I am more aware, and I quickly correct people’s assumptions. But these encounters have challenged how I view our veterans and what I say when I see them. Is it appropriate to thank them? How does that phrase make a soldier feel? Is there another phrase they would prefer that civilians used? As I can’t answer these questions, and I want to teach my daughter the right way to respond, I reached out to someone who knows firsthand what these experiences are like, both the good and the bad.
Chad Joiner joined the Army after the attacks of 9/11. He attended high school with my husband, and I have had the honor of getting to know him and his wife and daughters better over the past several years. Chad retired this year as a Staff Sergeant, but not before four deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, the survival of seven IED explosions, and countless memories that he would rather not recall, let alone discuss. If anyone deserves to be told “thank you,” it’s Chad. And yet, that’s not necessarily what he wants to hear. I asked him if he was willing to share his thoughts on this topic, and he graciously agreed to help me with this article.
What I learned from Chad is that your motives are more important than your words. “With some people, I can tell when they say thank you that it is something they feel they have to do, and those are the ones I hate. Don't do it because you feel you have to; I would rather have you not say anything. Some people are very genuine and those are the ones that I truly appreciate because they do understand what it means to have freedom and the sacrifice it takes to have it. It seems to me from the media and society in general, that it’s a gesture you have to do when you see a veteran,” he says. So if you encounter a veteran, and you feel the overwhelming desire to thank them, ask yourself a question. Am I doing this because I honestly want to convey my appreciation for sacrifices that I may never fully understand, or do I feel obligated to perform some socially accepted ritual when I see the military uniform? You may truly be thankful, but do you understand from personal experience what you are grateful for?
If you are anything like me, “thank you for your service” seems grossly inadequate. Even with pure motives, I will never comprehend what these men and women and their families have dealt with and continue to live day in and day out. And yet, I feel the overwhelming need to somehow attempt to acknowledge them and show my gratitude. This then begs the question, is this actually a practice to make me feel better? Maybe instead of a selfish response, I should consider the position in which this puts the service men and women. How are they to respond to our seemingly sincere comments?
Chad continues. “I receive a ‘thank you’ all the time from people, and that is because when I am out and about in my truck, they can see from my Purple Heart license plates and my Iraq and Afghanistan veteran magnets that I was in the military. I have no problem having people do this, but what I really struggle with is what to say in response. It makes me feel uncomfortable and nervous because I don't know how far the conversation is going to go. I am not one to just lay out what I did in the military, and especially what I did in Iraq and Afghanistan. I don't tell people much in fear of the judgment they will have towards me, and that they really can't understand what went on. My service is something very personal to me, and I really only share things with my brothers because they are the ones that get it. When people ask about my Purple Heart and how I got it, that is what really makes me cringe. That is an event that me, and the ones that were there, know what went on, and I really don't like putting that out there.”
So what should we say? I certainly don’t want to say the wrong thing, or make a soldier feel uncomfortable. Chad has a wonderful suggestion. Instead of “thank you,” or probing questions about combat, simply smile and say, “Welcome home.” It acknowledges their service without inadvertently opening the door to conversations that are private and personal. This response is especially important when you see a veteran from Vietnam. “They to me are the true heroes of this country,” Chad says. “Every time I see a Vietnam vet, I make sure to thank them and welcome them home because they never received that upon their return. They had no homecomings, they had no parades, they were spit on, called child murders and numerous other things. It's sad to look back and see that our country basically turned its back on them. I ask that if you see a Vietnam vet, tell them welcome home. They deserve it, and telling them welcome home means the world to them.”
Maybe “welcome home” doesn’t fit the situation. Or maybe you still want to do more, and you want to do it with the right intentions. Consider actions instead of words. There are multiple organizations that are actively helping veterans and their families. Research Wishes for Warriors, the Warrior’s Heart Facility, the Fisher House Foundation, and Patriot Anglers. What a way to truly thank the men and women that have given so much to protect that very freedoms we take for granted on a daily basis.
I want to thank Chad for helping me with this topic. I know it wasn’t easy for him to talk about, but he wants to educate others and in doing so, help his fellow veterans. He is making this about them and their needs, which is what Memorial Day and every other day should really be all about. Remembering those who have died, remembering those who are currently serving, and remembering those who have served and are living their lives as best they can.
Chad finishes, “People ask, ‘Why do you have the (license) plates if you don't want to talk about it?’ Well, because I earned that and so did many of my brothers. In my eyes, it defines who I am, and I proud of that. I also have them for my brothers that I lost, and so the public can see it constantly and never forget about us.” So this is the lesson I will teach my daughter about Memorial Day and how to interact with our veterans. I will teach her to have a grateful heart, considerate words, and most importantly, actions that show that we will never forget our veterans, and we will never stop supporting them and their families.