“Thank You for Your Service” Is Not Enough — Try This Instead
“Yes, makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they’re starvation cheap.”
— Rudyard Kipling’s Tommy
“People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”— Richard Grenier summarizing George Orwell and Rudyard Kipling
We owe a debt of honor to our rough men and women who stand ready to do violence on our behalf. Once a war is declared over for America, it is not over for those warriors who serve. We owe them more than the all-too-easy to dole out, “thank you for your service.” You can just drop that empty line, maybe shake a hand, and walk away feeling good about yourself. Have you ever sincerely asked how they feel? Or what they need?
I get it. You want to voice your support for our troops and the sacrifices they make but going beyond a simple expression of gratitude starts to feel awkward, like talking to a stranger in a strange land. You ask yourself, “How will I even relate to what they have been through?” “Is it even okay to ask them about their experiences?” “Will doing so trigger them to recall a bad one?” “What if they have a flashback and my question is what kicks off some PTSD chain reaction?” So, you keep your distance and go about your day. Stopping at cheap platitudes to honor our veterans who swore an oath to risk it all, no matter how well intentioned, is like putting a kid’s band-aid on a sucking chest wound. It is woefully inadequate.
You may have missed it. I know I did until I started researching for this post. Boston University and Brown University published a shocking Costs of War Research Series in June 2021. Did you know that for our post-9/11 veterans and service members, we have had 4 times as many deaths due to suicide than those that died in the entire wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined? In 20 years of war, on two different fronts, we lost 7,057 U.S. service members to combat operations. During that same period of time, we lost 30,177 active duty personnel and veterans of the post 9/11 wars to suicide.
Suicide is killing more than 4 times as many veterans as our most recent wars.
When you look at all veteran suicides (not just those who served post-9/11) between 2005–2018, the number jumps to 89,100. The VA was not tracking suicides prior to 2005 (that’s terrible) and stopped reporting on them post 2018 (that’s even more terrible). The U.S. veteran suicide rate is 1.5 times higher than that of the general population (adjusting for age and sex) and that is likely a conservative estimate. When you zero in on our younger veterans, ages 18–34, their suicide rate is about 2.5 times the suicide rate of the adjusted general population. This is a crisis, far worse than any of these wars on their own.
So, what makes post-9/11 service so deadly compared to the general population and serving prior to 9/11? I think the same study nails what is at the root of the problem — diminishing public approval and disinterest:
Just as one civilian may profusely and earnestly say, “Thank you for your service!” another may fear the veteran for perceived brokenness or craziness, even while some may not care either way. Feeling both set apart from society and a burden to it can trigger the onset of suicidal behaviors. If there is something novel to the Global War on Terror, it may be the diminishing approval and ignorance of the public coupled with persistent veteran stereotypes, which further alienate them from civilian society.
What our warriors do not want, or need, is our pity, our sympathy, or even some attempt to try and empathize with them if you have not been there and done that. We live in an age of an all-volunteer force. They signed up for this. They did their job honorably. They did what they were trained to do, what we expected them to do, what we needed them to do. Kill people and break things — and most would do it again in a heartbeat. I know I would in order to rid this world of evil. Many warriors are dissatisfied, and some are even depressed that they never got to do what they were meant to do. Veterans who did not serve in combat are at a higher risk of suicide. Our warriors are not broken or psychotic violence junkies. These people literally volunteered to sacrifice themselves, to give “the last full measure of devotion,” for all of us so we could sleep peacefully at night. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” After they came home and the wars dragged on and on, our veterans faded out of view. Now that the wars have been declared officially over for America, it doesn’t mean the internal wars are anywhere close to being over for our warriors. The more out of sight (off the television and news reports) our warriors are, the more out of mind they are. Now, as things continue to get worse for them, they are almost all too easy to forget.
On my long trip home from the war in Iraq in 2003, I did not know what to expect when I arrived back in America. My father-in-law, who had served over 30 years in the Navy, had told me stories about how awful our Vietnam veterans were treated when they returned home. My team and I had driven from northern Iraq to Kuwait City, flown from Kuwait to Naples, Italy to refuel, and then finally landed back in America in Bangor, Maine before flying all the way across country to San Diego, California.
Bangor is a sleepy, lumber and shipbuilding town with a population around 30,000. I don’t remember if it was late at night or early in the morning when we arrived in Bangor. I just know the “international” airport was small, dark, and otherwise should have been closed at this ungodly hour. That night, it surprisingly felt alive, full of gratitude, and celebratory.
This is when I first encountered the Maine Troop Greeters, which includes veterans from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. These veterans and civilian volunteers have shown up to welcome home our troops on all flights to and from the Middle East region since May 2003. The group gives handshakes and hugs, plays live music, waves flags, and offers mobile phones to call home, and cookies and treats to troops as they arrive back in the U.S. Their mission is to make sure all of our warriors who served in Iraq and Afghanistan truly feel appreciated for what they did. Now that the wars are over, how can we carry forward the spirit of the Maine Troop Greeters? What time, talent, and treasure are you willing to sacrifice for those who were willing to sacrifice it all for you?
Beyond “thank you for your service” try this:
- Ask if you can buy them a cup of coffee and say, “every superhero has an origin story, what’s yours?” Listen with the intent to understand. Really get to know them as a person and offer to hear their full story. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
- Check in on them periodically — not just on Veterans Day or Memorial Day or the 4th of July— do it just because you genuinely care about them and ask, “how are you doing?” And stick around with the sincerity that you really want to hear their real answer. (By the way, this is called being a decent human and not an asshole)
- Embrace their differences as strengths that will enhance your team and organization. These are men and women of character. They put mission and team above self. Do not try to make them fit perfectly into your existing culture (which I assure you can be better). Give them license to improve your current culture and they will.
- Hire veterans and hire the spouses and partners of veterans. Hire them for the content of their character and their team leadership skills. If they don’t have the technical skills you need, then train them. They LOVE training. And create an employee resource group to support their onboarding and continued connection and sense of community.
- Donate your time, talent, and treasure to reputable veteran-focused organizations. There are a lot of veteran organizations out there. Some are amazing, some are okay, and some are worthless. DM me if you want to know the ones I think are well worth your time and money and which ones to avoid. I am personally throwing my weight behind this one: PB Abbate. I will write more about this soon.