THE BLOG
11/10/2013 12:52 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

On Veterans Day, Please Don't Tell Me 'Thank You'

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About a week after 9/11, it was pretty clear our training in California was to be uninterrupted. We continued as we would have otherwise, albeit with a few more base restrictions.

We still studied Korean eight hours a day. We still enjoyed weekends off. We still ran from the south of the base to Lover's Point, along the beach and past barking seals as isolated from shift in military strategy as we were.

The Monterey locals were not so isolated. Uninformed on what exactly happened on base, all they knew was that we were training for something, and that something required languages, languages that were important for things in the future that 9/11 affected. Patriotism shifted, stirred, exploded in directions where we were the only ones to awkwardly receive it.

The only thing they could do with this newfound love of country was to say 'thank you.'

They didn't know how.

***

The end of Vietnam ushered in the era of the professional military. The end of the draft and the beginning of an all-volunteer military.

Involved in a Cold War, then a Gulf War, the most exposure many Americans had of the military was limited to the occasional engagement safely distant overseas.

Guilt slowly crept into the public psyche, guilt over how Korea and Vietnam veterans were treated when they returned home -- the former ignored, the latter shunned. It became a quiet public mandate that if were to go to war again - war that affected them deeply on an individual level - service members and veterans would not be treated poorly.

Mystery came alongside that guilt, however. With an all-volunteer military, families didn't have to care about overseas conflicts. They didn't have to be informed, and didn't have to be exposed to anyone in the service if they weren't inclined in the first place.

Over 30 years, mystery and guilt conspired to create a civilian-military gap that grew into a canyon.

In 2001, a few planes took more than a few lives, and that canyon had to be crossed.

***

The first attempt at crossing the canyon came during one of our runs. Halfway through, a local couple had their daughter make lemonade, who was dutifully passing out paper cups to soldiers passing by. I took my cup, confused. "Wh..."

"Thank you for serving," answered the girl shyly. I smiled a quick thank you.

Cooling down, I stared at the crumpled remains of the paper cup. Serving. I guessed I was serving. Or maybe committed to serve later.

The Defense Language Institute was a college. I was learning a language eight hours a day, taking ample free time to explore Northern California. I was going to school at one of the best language schools in the world on the public's dime, studying a language that would not really help in the fight against terrorism. Not unless al Qaeda suddenly took up Korean, anyway.

I don't deserve this cup.

I threw the cup aside, disgusted that I even considered myself deserving, wishing I didn't drink its contents.

***

In a restaurant a few weeks later I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked up to a nervous boy of about six. He just gazed at my boots, at my uniform. At me.

"Hey, buddy, what's up?" The boy looked back at a woman anxiously nodding. "Th..th...thank you," he stuttered. I hesitated, confused. "Thank you for..."

The boy looked around nervously. To the lady looking on impatiently. To my boots. Then back to me. "Thank you for...for..."

"For serving, sweetheart," the mom cut in. The boy dashed back to his mom's chair, his emissary duties complete.

I stared for an uncomfortable amount of time before my friend kicked my leg. "Say 'Thank you,'" she hissed. "Thank you," I stumbled.

The mom looked relieved, her civic duty fulfilled, shouting across a canyon without any clue who the other person was.

***

The mutual 'thank yous' eventually became less awkward, though I have never felt like I deserved them. My service completed roughly as expected, experiencing nothing more dangerous than the plane ride home on leave.

I still receive those thank yous. I still witness those thank yous being given to vets and service members who actually do deserve them.

But they're still shouts across a canyon that isn't getting any smaller. The civilian-military divide is still as large as it ever was.

Today, don't say 'thank you' to me. Please, don't say it. It's not a word I deserve.

I still would like you to keep shouting across that canyon, however. Not to me, but to others who have been in much more precarious situations. Who still are.

But don't shout 'Thank You.' It's been 10 years -- more than 10 years. They know you appreciate them. They need you to learn about them. Tell them that you will.

'I'm coming over to your side,' you should shout.

And then start figuring out how.