When ‘thank you for your service’ rankles veterans

Hunter Garth was in a gunfight for his life – and about to lose. He and seven other Marines were huddled in a mud hut, their only refuge after they walked into an ambush in Trek Nawa, a Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan. Down to his last 15 bullets, one buddy already terribly wounded, Garth pulled off his helmet, smoked a cheap Afghan cigarette and “came to terms with what was happening.”

“I’m going to die here with my best friends,” he recalled thinking.

I didn’t know any of this – nor the remarkable story of his survival that day – when I met him two months ago in Colorado while reporting for an article about the marijuana industry, for which Garth and his company provide security. But I did know he was a vet and so I did what seemed natural: I thanked him for his service.

“No problem,” he said.

It wasn’t true. There was a problem. I could see it from the way he looked down. And I could see it on the faces of some of the other vets who work with Garth when I thanked them, too. What gives, I asked? Who doesn’t want to be thanked for their military service?

Many people, it turns out. Mike Freedman, a Green Beret, calls it the “thank you for your service phenomenon.” To some recent vets – by no stretch all of them – the thanks comes across as shallow, disconnected, a reflexive offering from people who, while meaning well, have no clue what soldiers did over there or what motivated them to go and who would never have gone themselves or sent their own sons and daughters.

To these vets, thanking soldiers for their service symbolizes the ease of sending a volunteer army to wage war at great distance – physically, spiritually, economically. It raises questions of the meaning of patriotism, shared purpose and, pointedly, what you’re supposed to say to those who put their lives on the line and are uncomfortable about being thanked for it.

Garth, 26, said that when he gets thanked, it can feel self-serving for the thankers, suggesting that he did it for them and that they somehow understand the sacrifice, night terrors, feelings of loss and bewilderment. Or don’t think about it at all.

“I pulled the trigger,” he said. “You didn’t. Don’t take that away from me.”

The idea of giving thanks while not participating themselves is one of the core vet quibbles, said Freedman, the Green Beret. The joke has become so prevalent, he said, that servicemen and women sometimes walk up to one another pretending to be “misty-eyed” and mockingly say “thanks for your service.”

Freedman, 33, feels like the thanks alleviates some of the civilian guilt, adding: “They have no skin in the game with these wars. There’s no draft.”

No real opinions, either, he said. “At least with Vietnam, people spit on you and you knew they had an opinion.”

“Thank you for your service,” he said, is almost the equivalent of “I haven’t thought about any of this.”

For most of us, I suspect, offering thanks reflects genuine appreciation – even if ill-defined. It was a dirty job and someone had to do it. If not these men and women, then us or our children.

Tim O’Brien, a Vietnam vet and the author of the acclaimed book “The Things They Carried,” told me that his war’s vets who believed in the mission like to be thanked. Others, himself included, find that “something in the stomach tumbles” from expressions of appreciation that are so disconnected from the “evil, nasty stuff you do in war.”

The more so, he said, “when your war turns out to have feet of clay” – whether fighting peasants in Vietnam or in the name of eradicating weapons of mass destruction that never materialized.

But doesn’t their sacrifice merit thanks? “Patriotic gloss,” responded O’Brien, an unofficial poet laureate of war who essentially elevates the issue to the philosophical; to him, we’re thanking without having the courage to ask whether the mission is even right.

It’s hard to assess how widespread such ideas are among the men and women of today’s generation. So, rather than try to sum up what invariably are many views, I’ll relate more of Garth’s story.

He grew up in Florida, son of a Vietnam vet, grandson of a decorated World War II vet, himself a bit of a class clown who drank his way out of college and wound up working the docks. The Marines offered a chance to make something of himself and, despite his parents’ pleadings otherwise, to fight.

It wasn’t what he romanticized. First training and waiting. Then the reality that he might die, along with his friends –17 of them did, in action, by accident or by suicide. And, he now asks, for what?

His ideas about the need to prove himself slipped away, along with any patriotic fervor. He hates it when people dismiss the Taliban as imbeciles when he saw them as cunning warriors. To Garth, the war became solely about survival among brothers in arms.

Like that day in September 2011 when Garth was surrounded in the hut. A last-ditch call for help over the radio prompted a small group of fellow Marines to run 3 miles to save the day, one of them carrying 170 pounds of gear, including a 22-pound machine gun and 50 pounds of ammo.

The thanks Garth gets today remind him of both the bad times and the good, all of which carry more meaning than he has now in civilian life. Hardest is the gratitude from parents of fallen comrades. “That’s the most painful thank you,” he said. “It’s not for me, and I’m not your son.”

He struggled to explain his irritation. “It’s not your fault,” he said of those thanking him. “But it’s not my fault, either.”

So what to say to a vet? Maybe promise to vote next time, Freedman said, or offer a scholarship or job. Stand up for what’s right, suggested O’Brien.

Garth appreciates thanks from someone who makes an effort to invest in the relationship and experience. Or from a fellow vet who gets it. Several weeks ago, he visited one of his soul mates from the mud hut firefight, which they refer to as the Battle of the Unmarked Compound. They drank Jameson whiskey in gulps.

“We cried in each other’s arms until we both could tell each other we loved each other,” Garth said. “We each said, thank you for what you’ve done for me.”

Matt Richtel is a reporter

for The New York Times.