A few years ago, Mark and I were sitting with a friend in a Panera restaurant having coffee and talking. Suddenly a man I call the Panera Stranger thrust his hand at Mark and said, “Thank you for your service!” Mark mumbled something, I was paralyzed, and we were all – including, most likely, the Stranger, left feeling awkward and uncomfortable.
I open the book with this incident because the whole book is about listening. It is about telling stories and listening. I didn’t know enough then to run after the man and tell him to come back and sit down. I didn’t know enough to say we all have to do something different because this isn’t working. This indiscriminate thanking isn’t getting us anywhere and it is, in some ways, making things worse.
There are a number of themes that keep recurring during this conference I am on and one of them is this phrase. Everyone seems to know that something is out of balance with its use. This morning Brian Canter (Iraq veteran and author of The Long Walk) said that it is at least partly a matter of a pendulum swing. Vietnam veterans were blamed for the failures of that war and were often treated badly or at least neglected. So, to compensate, it is now the fashion to exalt veterans and call them ‘heroes.’ Thanking veterans in this scattershot way ends the conversation, though, when what is needed is for conversation to start.
Several of the speakers have been asked, sometimes touchingly, how are we supposed to say thank you? The questioners get that something is amiss but they are good-hearted and they don’t know what to do. In each case, there has not been a clear answer. Even the speakers don’t know what to say because they have to fall back on the fact that all veterans are different. In the case of the Panera Stranger incident, I didn’t know Mark well enough at that point to know what he thought of it. Maybe he liked it, I didn’t know. Maybe he wanted to be invited to walk on the red carpet at the airport, rather than the blue one we stay-at-homes have to use. (Turns out he doesn’t but he also wears his cap, so it’s complicated.) So none of our speakers has had a good, easy-to-remember solution to recommend, which leaves poor confused civilians to say nothing rather than say something wrong, and that is no solution either.
So I was pondering all this when I came back to my little apartment where I found an email from a veteran who was responding to that part of the book manuscript. He told this story:
One day while grocery shopping, I was stopped by a mother with two young boys. They noticed the hat. The mother asked if it would be ok for the boys to ask me some questions about the war. I said ok and proceeded to respond to their questions with generic and clean answers. The mother thanked me and the older boy said “thank you, sir.” I thanked them. I walked half way down the aisle and wiped a tear from my eye. I felt honored.
This mother did everything right. She asked permission for the boys to ask questions. She thanked him, not “for his service” but for his time and his attention to her boys. The older boy knew to say, “thank you, sir.” This encounter might not have taken long but it meant a genuine connection and respect. Most importantly, it made that veteran feel, not separated from community, but honored by it.
I grabbed the graphic from InMilitary, where Wes O’Donnell, a veteran, has an essay on this problem.