While touring the U.S.S. Midway Museum in San Diego early this month, I wore a “U.S. Air Force” ball cap with various stuff pinned to it, such as the rank I wore, a missile badge (“pocket rocket” for those who know), SAC logo, and a rectangular piece of metal that declares “Combat Crew.”
During the course of walking around, I got lots of glances and several comments of “thank you for your service.”
Also got some joshing comments from the retired Navy guys about them ‘allowing’ me on their ship. Since we were all on the same team back in the day, the kidding was pure fun.
I was on active duty for only four years and that was decades ago. I never got within 3,000 miles of hostile action. (Of course if the flag had gone up, I would have been radioactive dust at 20,000 feet altitude about 40 minutes later.)
As a result, I was uneasy for a long time when someone said “Thanks for your service.”
It took me a few years to get to get comfortable with those comments.
I now graciously and proudly accept those expressions of appreciation from my fellow Americans, but not because of what I did so long ago.
I accept those comments with honor on behalf of all those soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, ‘coasties’, and now Space Command warriors who do not have someone looking them in the eye, shaking their hand, and saying “thanks.”
So for all those troops pulling alerts, standing watch, scheduling logistics, monitoring screens, cranking wrenches, or taking fire, please know that vast numbers of Americans are grateful for your service.
I pass on to you their frequent thanks.
You are there and not here so people thank me (and others) instead. It is you they are really thanking.
While this weekend we remember with gratitude and gratefulness those who did not return, I hope those who are serving today hear the appreciation.
I first posted the following comments a decade ago, all the way back on May 30, 2011. I wish to republish them today with only minor changes:
Two weeks ago I attended an old west re-enactment in a city near my home. Between skits, one of the re-enactors noticed I was wearing a hat that said “USS Midway,” which is a carrier that was in service from the end of WWII to 1991. It is now a museum in San Diego.
He asked if I was a veteran. Didn’t understand his interruption at first. As I asked him to repeat himself, I remembered the hat I was wearing.
“Are you a veteran?”
While in the Air Force, I had a job that was correctly and officially rated as “combat crew.” I was insulated by years and thousands of miles from anyone shooting at (or blowing up) American troops. As proud as I am of my service, I do not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as anyone in an American uniform who has been under enemy fire or even spent the night in a combat zone. Sitting in an underground bunker on the plains of South Dakota during the mild days of the Cold War is not even close to the same thing.
It takes too long to explain how removed I was from ever being in a combat zone and as a result I don’t consider myself a veteran. It would have dishonored his intent by saying I merely bought the hat in the Midway gift shop during a San Diego vacation. So, since I was actually in a combat-rated job four years, I merely said:
“Thank you for your service”, he said, shaking my hand.
Though I count myself unworthy of his appreciation, especially as I recall the exchange one day in advance of Memorial Day, I mentally accepted his thank you on behalf of all the veterans who were not within his reach.
So, to all veterans, especially those who will not be given a verbal “thank you” today, I pass on that man’s thank you and hearty handshake. To you, the ones who have done the heavy lifting to provide for my freedom, I also say with deep appreciation, thank you for your service.
For those who paid the ultimate price, this other fellow and I am deeply, profoundly grateful. None of us can shake their hands.