Warning, this commentary contains fowl grumpy veterans' language intended for adult eyes only.
Recently, an American veteran of combat in Afghanistan wrote an op-ed, in a major big city newspaper, about why he really doesn't want folks to upset him by saying, "thank you for serving." OK, well, he's earned the right to be a disgruntled vet and say whatever the hell he wants, right? He explains at great length 'why' the "thank you" thing annoys him so much. He says that those who feel moved to thank him 'weren't there, they have no idea what it was like, they didn't pull the trigger, they weren't trapped and besieged in an isolated place far from home, nearly out of ammunition, with several of his friends dead or dying... .' 'They didn't serve, nor did their children,' he noted, and he somehow gets the feeling that they are just trying to make themselves feel better about it, and - and, well, it just pisses him off.
I understand where he's coming from, but I don't agree with him. Additionally, in passing, he noted that Vietnam vets got spit on for their service, rather than being thanked, and that 'at least they were getting an opinion,' which he sees as better than mindless thanks. I think that a lot of Vietnam vets would aggressively differ with his opinion! What the hell does he know about what went on forty years ago?! Vietnam vets didn't come home looking for thanks; they weren't idiots; but they didn't appreciate being spit on and cursed at.
So, if you walk by a VA hospital and pass a bunch of grumpy old late sixtyish Vietnam vets out on the sidewalk smoking and stop to say, "thank you for serving," some of them might just wordlessly glare at you in disbelief, as if to say, "NOW? After all this time!? Go fuck yourself!"
One of my favorite Vietnam Vet baseball caps says, "Dysfunctional Veteran-Leave Me Alone!" To a Vietnam Era vet, its terribly funny! You simply have to have lived through it all to get it. To everyone else, its not a joke, its a half serious warning. Seriously, some of these guys are stark raving crazy; best to follow the hat's advice and leave them alone. Why? Some of these old guys went through all kinds of hell and shit over there as young men, and it affected the rest of their long lives, they never got over it; and no one ever even thanked them for it.
So, now, when some carefree 'never served' comes hippity hoppity down the sidewalk and looks up from his iphone and says "Thank you for serving," forty years late, its like you want to pop your eyes out of your head at them and growl, "mind your own fucken business..." OK, well, if you really aren't nuts, you know better at the age of 68 and don't actually say that. You just nod and sigh, and hope they go back to whatever they're doing on their iphone and keep walking.
But, what does make me crazy when I'm standing out in the cold on the sidewalk in front of the VA hospital smoking, is when some 'never served' comes hippity hoppity down the sidewalk and sees me in my 'vet hat' and SALUTES! I was a sergeant, damnit! Its right there on my hat! Don't fucken salute me, you idiot! Sigh! Yeah, OK, I know, they haven't got a clue. They're just having fun or something and in their own way imagining that they're saying "thank you for serving"... yada yada yada. No no, I'm not quite that nuts; I don't actually say that. I just glare at them or pretend that I didn't see it. This being New York City, they know better than to talk to a stranger and just keep walking. If they do look like they are actually going to stop and try to talk to me, I just give them this look that silently says, "You know, I'm a Vietnam Era vet; I've been trained to kill with my bare hands...." That freaks out people who never served.
Well, I was! I was trained to do all kinds of things a lifetime ago. Now, I'm a grumpy old vet, with a cane, false teeth, and a bad back from Huey Jumping. If I can't have a little fun scaring some 'never served' imbecile who saluted me, then its time to pack up.
So, the point is that, even though I get where he's coming from, I don't agree with the fellow who says, "Don't Thank Me for Serving!" Its like telling people that they shouldn't ever think about the sacrifice of patriotic service. Its bad enough that the majority of Americans are oblivious to and unaware of what those who served have gone through for the sake of our freedom. They hardly know that we've been at war for over a decade. During WWII, people knew we were at war, even if they never lived through having their city fire bombed. Absolutely everyone knew someone who was 'over there' that they worried about every single day. When our Greatest Generation came home from WWII, they were heroes who were given every benefit by a grateful nation. Not now.
Some folks who never served actually have the nerve to ask me if I ever killed anyone! Bloody hell! When I give a talk to a class of school kids about having served, they have the right to ask that. They are learning, they are curious, they are planning their lives. They want to really know what it was like. I didn't, I assure them. Thank God! But no one else really has the right to ask for that vicarious thrill of horror.
But, folks do have the obligation to try to thank those who served to preserve their way of life. That's what I think. It can be annoying to be thanked, it can be uncomfortable, even irritating or embarrassing. I want to tell people who thank me, "um well, I didn't actually DO anything...." But, I know they are not actually just thanking me personally; they are thanking us all. So, despite all my grumbling, I try to nod, smile slightly, and with a tone of somber seriousness, say, "thank you."
Now, of course, this is a website about honoring the service of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender veterans. So, what about that, how does that tie in with being thanked or not? For those of us who served before and during DADT, when being openly gay was totally forbidden, we were in constant danger, every single day and night, of being murdered by our own fellow service members if they got it into their heads that we were gay, even if we weren't! As recently as 1999, Barry Winchell was beaten to death with a baseball bat, in his sleep at Ft. Campbell, KY, because they 'thought' he was gay. He wasn't. Every single day of ten years of service, I had to listen to vile homophobic comments and jokes by fellow service members to whom my gayness was invisible, who could not see my rainbow soul, who didn't know about the man back home who loved me.
If you haven't lived through it, you can't know what it was like to have patriotically volunteered and then be treated like shit by those you were serving with because they were prejudiced against who you were without even knowing that you were there with them. If they found out, they'd kill you or report you and then you'd be interrogated and terrorized for months by your own superiors, and then you'd be dishonorably discharged in disgrace, just because of who you are.
Its perhaps pretty hard to understand the sense of patriotic pride that drives a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person to do that, if you haven't done it. When I told gay friends that I was going to serve, or that I did, they tended to look at me in horror and say something like, "Oh my God, how could you DO that!?" OK, what they're saying is that they don't understand; fair enough. But it would be much nicer and feel much better if they simply said, "OH, wow, Thank you for serving!" I'm not asking to be understood, and I'm not asking to be thanked. But if I were to shout, "You didn't serve! DON'T THANK ME," I'd be shooting myself in the foot.
I don't know about other people, but I'm proud as hell to have served my country. I'm proud as an American, proud as the son of an illegal immigrant refugee, and proud as a Gay American. I guess the difference in understanding between those who served and those who didn't is like the difference between being white and black, male and female, straight and gay, rich and poor, or safe and homeless. But, when there's an attempt at recognition, its progress.
So, go ahead and thank me for serving, its ok. Just don't salute me, it makes me crazy.
-fmr Sgt First Class Denny Meyer, gay veteran