How To Thank A Veteran

I am a proud US Air Force veteran. I served between Gulf Wars in the late ’90s. I was deployed to the Persian Gulf twice and spent my last year in the Republic of Korea.

And I am always embarrassed when someone thanks me for my service.

I’ve read that the best response to that is for the veteran to say, “Thank you for your support.” I use that now but it feels weird. I was never in combat. I got out in 2000 with no clue what would happen to our nation a year later. But that response – “Thank you for your support” – gets me thinking about how we, as a nation, truly support our veterans.

I saw a commercial the other night, paid for by Wal-Mart, encouraging people to replace an exterior light bulb with a green one as part of the “Greenlight a Vet” campaign. Putting a green lightbulb on the front of your house is the equivalent of “Liking” a Facebook post to fight childhood cancer. That is to say, worthless. You know who benefits from putting a green lightbulb on your house? The person who sells green lightbulbs. Let’s see, where could I buy one… oh, Wal-Mart sells them… ah. I get it.

To be fair, there are other, non-commercial components to Greenlight a Vet. Connecting returning veterans with support services, encouraging companies to consider veterans as candidates for jobs – all good things. But please, don’t fall into that instant gratification, click-but-don’t-act perspective so prevalent in our society.

In my opinion, we can best thank a veteran in a few key ways:

  1. Honor our promises to them. They kept up their end of the bargain – they served. We need to keep our promises to provide veterans’ benefits as promised. Health care (especially care for PTSD and other invisible wounds!), pensions – they cost money. But our veterans have done their work and deserve what they were promised.
  2. Help them transition back to civilian life. Civilian life may as well be life on Mars compared to their time in the service. Look beyond the surface functions they performed in their military job. Understand the competencies that they bring to a civilian career – hard work, integrity, teamwork, pursuing excellence – these are why you should hire vets. Along with jobs, have empathy for this life-changing transition that they are undergoing.
  3. Use their service wisely. This is as political as I get. The United States armed forces – the most powerful military in the world – places itself under the authority of our elected civilian leader. Think about that. It is we the people, through our elected leaders, who decide how to use this vast strength. Any sustainable system balances authority with responsibility. So as a people, we must accept responsibility for the choices of our government – and by extension, our choices – in how we use our military forces. We must hold our leaders accountable when our military is used in ways that are unworthy of their service.

So today, if you see a veteran, go ahead and thank them for their service. But don’t forget to thank them in the ways that really count.

It’s the least we can do.

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