Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Much ado about "Thank you"

If you read the Navy Times or the New York Times, you've probably come across a recent article by Matt Richtel called "Please Don't Thank Me for My Service."  You can also follow a VERY long discussion thread on Rally Point, and probably elsewhere, where plenty of service members are expressing their desire to not be thanked for their service.

Honestly, it's offensive and childish, almost on the same level as people who insist on a military discount anywhere they go.

We all know an idiot described above, the one military member that makes a big to-do about their service at every opportunity, when in reality there isn't much for them to talk about.  The "I don't want to be thanked" crowd would, on the surface, seem to be more noble than that, and certainly the NYT article plays to those ideas. 

There is a dark side to denying thanks though.  By not allowing someone to thank you, you deny that person the ability to give back.  You effectively say "I am so much better than you, you can't possibly understand how great I am, so your little efforts are meaningless."  I would call that sort of attitude a god-complex, similar to a brainiac pointing out how much smarter he is than everyone else around him.

If you want to be a jerk, go right ahead and rage about how you don't want thanks or can never be thanked.  But what about the rest of us?  Assuming you fall between the military-discount demander and the "don't thank me" fascist, I have a few thoughts:

1. It's OK to be uncomfortable.  I've been thanked for my service by medical people before, and my first thought is "Dude, you keep people ALIVE! I could never do that!"  It's OK though.  Whether you know it or not, you do some pretty incredible things that you no longer consider incredible.  I remember talking with a young lady on a plane flight about being on a submarine, and I might as well have narrated "The Hunt For Red October" to her.  Funny thing though, she worked for the CDC and I found her deployments just as fascinating, although for her it was routine to deploy to Africa and stop the spread of a disease.

The point is, if you're doing it right, it'll feel uncomfortable and weird to be thanked.  Don't let it bother you too much.  The weird feeling is just your modesty kicking it, preventing you from getting a big head...and that's a good thing!

2. You don't have to be a SEAL to be thanked.  The picture on the top is me and my crews in front of our plane.  We worked some awesome missions, and likely that sort of thing is what most Americans think I do all day.  The reality is I, you and every other military person does a lot of non-warfighting stuff.  Guess what?  Every other profession is the same way.  Doctors spend a lot of time filling out paperwork, and fire fighters spend a lot of time cleaning (sound familiar?).  It's not every minute that a doctor is pounding someone's chest in an effort to keep her alive, or a fire fighter is pulling a baby out of a burning building.  But you know what?  We still thank them anyway, and rightfully so.

3. Accept the thanks politely.  Don't know what to say?  How about:

- It's an honor to serve.
- Just doing my job.
- Thank YOU for making a great country to come home to.
- Thank YOU for your support.

Don't be snarky.  References to paying your taxes or supporting foreign policy aren't needed.  Most Americans don't serve, and they simply want to express the gratitude they have for what you do.  They have an idea about long hours and crappy jobs.  Did they go through basic or deploy to Afghanistan?  No, and you serve to prevent them from doing so, so don't rub it in their face by denying them the possibility of giving just a little back to you.  

Is that harsh?  Let's say a fire fighter saved your kid from a burning building.  You go up after and say "Thank you so much for what you do!"  If the fire fighter responded with "Don't thank me sir, you don't know anything about my job."  how would that make you feel?  I'd personally want to slug the guy.  That sort of response is denigrating to the individual and is completely uncalled for.  If you deny thanks to someone, you're doing the exact same thing.

Also, if you have the time, use the opportunity to get to know that person.  You might be the first military member that they have ever met.  Talk to them about what you do.  Ask them about what they do.  You'd be amazed at what you can learn.

4. If you get something monetary, be a gentleman/lady about it.  You can politely ask if somewhere has a military discount.  If not, the proper response is "No problem, thanks for letting me know."  Not hard, and certainly not embarrassing.

If someone buys your lunch/dinner/gas/whatever, you should politely decline once, then if they insist accept their offer unless it is exotic.  For example, you go to get the check and the guy at the neighboring table says "I got your check, thank you for your service."  The correct response is "Sir, you don't need to do that, I'm just happy to serve."  If he insists, politely accept, but then offer to leave a tip for the waitress.  Doing it this way, you give the man a chance to feel good about helping you while still looking gentlemanly in the process.

Be careful on what I call "exotic" gifts, like jewelry, watches, or outright cash.  If someone offers you something expensive, say over 150 dollars, you should decline it profusely.  Large gifts can land you in trouble with the law and on your security clearance.  Simply say "Regulations won't let me accept your generous gift.  You don't have to get me anything, I'm just happy to serve."

5. Let thanks make you a better person.  When I was in ROTC, I was the Color Guard Commander, and I worked flag presentations for parades during the summer.  We had a four person team go to a parade, which was super small and in one of the local neighborhoods.  My immature 20-year old self thought it was a waste of our time, and my attitude probably showed a bit.  A lady with two kids overheard us, and she walked over and said "We really appreciate you guys coming out."

Wow.  That made me feel about 2 inches tall.  I stopped complaining and made darn sure that parade was one of our best.

Every time someone has thanked me, it makes me check myself.  Am I behaving professionally?  Am I setting a good example?  I had a little kid salute me once when I was in uniform.  I returned his salute, but it made me think "Is my uniform in perfect condition for him?"  Thanks should drive you to be the best you can be, to live up to the hero status that the American public attributes to its military.

Maybe you don't think you're a hero.  Maybe you don't think you should be thanked.  Maybe you are only a few days away from separating and you hated your 4 years in the military.  But if someone thanks you for your service, do the decent thing and accept it, if not for you than for your fellow service members that are doing the hard work right now for the country.