When people hear that I served in the military, they tend to always thank me for my service. Rich or poor, black or white, men or women, Americans in general seem to be fairly universal in their praise for the people who are part of our all-volunteer force. As a nation, it is accepted and proclaimed that America owes a debt of gratitude to my generation of veterans. Collectively, society pays us back in health care at the VA or college through the Post 9/11 GI Bill or a new opportunity through a Small Business Administration-backed loan. But how should individual Americans show their thanks?
People tend to be sincere in their thanks. Sometimes it's a little too sincere -- acting as if I had no other life choice other than to join the Army (in truth, these kinds of "thanks" can get awkward). Sometimes people are warm and kind, while other times they say thanks because they think it's just the right social thing to do -- like "bless you" after someone sneezes. Anyone who is Active Duty or a veteran of the military knows these various forms of thanks, and we can usually guess which one will be delivered before the first word crosses a person's lips.
The moments, though, that we enjoy and remember are fairly universal too. It's the experience of people who are actually interested, who want to understand, and who, in their own way are trying to grasp this tragic human experience of warfare. Often times, these moments are those interactions with kids, usually nine and under, trying to grasp all these foreign concepts. My favorite question is still the one from a six-year-old who asked me (while I was in uniform) why I was wearing the same outfit as his dad.
My response to the people who thank me is to return their thanks and on the more solemn and serious occasions I simply smile and tell them it was my privilege to serve. People have bought me drinks or meals, and a London cabbie even offered to pay my fare. I always try to decline (with exception of the drinks -- I'm only human) but usually I succumb to some type of charity. It seems incredibly selfish to accept charity for doing something I loved being a part of, but I have found through the years that the charity towards me tends to make the giver feel much better, as if they have helped contribute to "the Cause."
Recently, I have been giving more thought to what individual Americans "owe" those of us who served. An often repeated adage is that "a veteran - whether active duty, retired, or national guard or reserve - is someone who, at one point in their life, wrote a blank check made payable to 'The United States of America,' for an amount of "up to and including THEIR LIFE." So what do individual Americans owe in return for my "blank check?"
Truth be told, I actually think you owe me nothing. I sacrificed some, but certainly nowhere near as much as many. You do however owe a great deal to those men and women who returned less than whole in body, spirit, or most tragically, life. And the best conclusion I have come up with is that you owe them a commitment to civic involvement.
You owe it them to be involved, locally and nationally, in our country's political system. For it was our country's political leadership that sent them to war. It is the laziest of cynics who declare that politics is only for the rich or for the organized or for anyone but themselves. Cynicism and apathy isn't smart or wise; it's just easy, because having no hope and giving up is always a simple and pathetic answer. Politics is a frustrating field. We are not always going to agree on policy, but that's okay. Ultimately, that is what makes our country truly great: From many, one.
So even in this toxic political environment, I ask you give up your most finite resource: your time. Learn about the candidates, study an issue you care about, and get involved. If you cannot be motivated for yourself, friends or family, or the next generation, then be motivated by the men and women we have left on the battlefield. Ultimately, that is the best form of thanks to those who have served. Now -- Go Vote.