Thank you for your Service

“Thank you for your service.”

It’s a comment I hear with some frequency these days. When I served from 1966-1989, no one ever said that to me. In fact most of us who served in the Vietnam era were never thanked; yet those who served after Desert Storm and in the ongoing Afghan and Iraq theaters most likely were thanked. It’s an odd thing to think about: we all served our nation, many put their lives in danger, yet many were shunned while others were thanked.

If one could pinpoint the phrase’s emergence, it would be in primarily the last 20 years. One factor that changed the attitudes may be Tom Brokaw’s 1998 work, The Greatest Generation. His book lauded the men and women of the WWII era. These Americans survived the Great Depression, helped win WWII, and built a stronger post war world. The book seemed to touch a national nerve. It helped revive feelings that were dormant during the post-Vietnam period but had formed the strong support for America’s military in the past. Brokaw, then, tapped into our strong national pride and respect for our citizen soldier.

In our early history, rather than having a professional standing army which the founders feared, the United States relied upon its citizen soldiers to do their duty when needed. After their time in service, these men and woman returned home, put down their arms, and rejoined their communities as if nothing had happened. This is the model that worked well until Vietnam.   

That war tore up the social contract and ripped the country apart. Americans who served were cast as the villains (rather than the politicians who actually ran and micro managed the war). World War II was considered a “good war,” but Korea and Vietnam were viewed as failures. Desert Storm fulfilled the need for an American victory in combat and helped to shift the national mood toward veterans. In turn Brokaw built on this feeling and helped heal the breach between those who did not serve and those who had by showing that those who served were neighbors, family and friends who did their duty: ordinary Americans who rose to the challenge.

“Thank you for your service.”

It would seem to be a simple thing to say and one that most veterans would welcome. But like many veteran issues even this phrase can be complicated. There are several veterans face book groups and periodically this subject is raised. Some folks feel humbled. Some are embarrassed. Many feel it is awkward to be approached and put on the spot. It’s not that this recognition isn’t appreciated: it is.

Most who served have no regrets; they feel that they did their duty in an honorable manner when so many have not. Most vets do not see their time in uniform as heroic. Some well-wishers try to engage them in further conversation, which many find difficult. Questions like: where did you serve or did you engage in combat can be problematic and trigger complex memories and reactions. It is hard, for many to discuss their service with people they do not know. They are not close friends. They ask that others please respect that fact.

To engage veterans, then, become involved with groups such as the African American PTSD Association, Wounded Warriors, Honor Flight, VFW , USO, American Legion, American Red Cross, etc. which all need volunteers. A complete listing of opportunities can be found on the VA website ( ) There are many ways to help.

Also, take some time to learn about our military and what veterans have endured during their service. Some studies state that less than 1 percent of all Americans today have any ties to the military or veterans. Soldiers give up much to serve: enduring isolation, hardships and separation from family, and of course possible death. Most Americans do not know that almost every person who served in Vietnam was exposed to Agent Orange. It is a terrible chemical and significant health issue for many. Learning about these issues will break down the barriers between those who served and those who did not.

So what should one do when encountering a veteran?

If they self-identify with a hat or patch on a jacket – say “Thank you for your service.”

No more no less.


A version of this post, appeared as an OpEd in the Finger Lakes Times, Geneva NY, Sunday November 10, 2019

About jenorv

John E. Norvell is a retired Air Force Lt Colonel, decorated air combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and former Assistant Professor of American and Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He has written freelance for the Washington Post, the Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy and History, and for several newspapers around the country.
This entry was posted in Air Force, American History, Veterans, World War Ii and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Thank you for your Service

  1. David Shanklin says:

    I wear caps most of the time which identifies me as a veteran. I get lots of Thanks for your service, but usually only from like minded folks who may be mostly from veterans families themselves. IF this country continues down the path we see emerging now at the National level, in twenty years there will be no “Thank Yous ” because we will no longer have a young population willing to fight for the things you and I fine natural. Wake up the country and lets all work together with WHOEVER is elected to our top offices instead of the constant bickering we have going on at the top now. Compromise is not a dirty word, A Congress with more subpoenas than bills passed is NOT helping our National interests ( In this veterans honest opinion )

  2. Lyle F. Padilla says:

    I was a post-Vietnam F-4 Phantom Weapons Systems Officer (backseater); I was in my first year of Air Force ROTC at Rutgers University the last year of the Vietnam War, starting a year and a half after the 1973 ceasefire, and the Fall of Saigon occurring less than a month before the end of my Freshman year. I was never in ‘Nam, but I sure as hell got my uniform spat on and called a baby killer, by my own classmates and even some professors. While I was there, then-Captain Joseph E. Milligan, a fellow graduate of Rutgers and AFROTC Detachment 485, had returned to his alma mater for graduate school after having returned from nearly six years of captivity as a Prisoner of War at the infamous Hanoi Hilton. [He was a Pilot Systems Officer when shot down in 1967, before PSOs were replaced in the F-4 by WSOs (rated Navigators). He and his frontseater, Major Jack L. van Loan, were the only wingmen ever lost by the legendary fighter ace Colonel Robin Olds ever lost in two wars.] He was attached to the Detachment 485 cadre for administrative support while a grad student still on active duty.

    For me personally, the lowest point of the Vietnam Era, even worse than the actual Fall of Saigon (at which most of my civilian classmates at Rutgers actually cheered) was when Capt Milligan was invited to sit on the panel in a forum on Vietnam, open to students, shortly before the North Vietnamese re-invaded the South. The professor “moderating” the forum actually had the nerve to ask Capt Milligan, who had suffered years of beatings and torture by his captors, if he felt like Adolf Eichmann for having bombed civilians in North Vietnam. The fact that Colonel Ralph Yates, the commander of AFROTC Detachment 485, was also present and immediately raised a protest directly at the moderator did little to dampen such an appalling and disgusting comparison.

    The anti-military atmosphere at Rutgers persisted over the remainder of my four years, but Col Yates and the other ROTC instructors were quick to emphasize to us cadets that the freedom to express those sentiments were guaranteed by the same Constitution we would be sworn to defend with our lives if necessary as officers. I actually came up with a name for that paradigm, the Voltaire Paradox, after the French philosopher to whom the quote is attributed: “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

    However, after seeing some factions in this country reverting to heaping the same crap upon today’s veterans that they visited upon the veterans of the Vietnam Era, after this country was attacked on its own soil on 9-11, and now that I’m safely retired from the Armed Forces of the United States, I’m not as strong a subscriber of that ideal as I used to be.

    • jenorv says:

      Thank you for your frank and honest comments. I was a WSO for six years, and I would never change that for the world. I flew combat missions in SEA and knew many POWs after the war. Your comments are spot on. It was a difficult time when we who did our duty were blamed for the bad decisions and mismanagement of the war by our leaders. I spent 23 years in the Air Force and would again not change that. But the world is a different place and those who serve now deserve our respect and thanks for all they do. They are honorable folks who do their duty when so many do not.

  3. I was lucky. Was there in ’67/’68. 164and 1/2 missions. My follow-on posting was RAF Woodbridge; 78th sqn, F-4C then D. The brits never did disrespect us. RAF heritage I suppose. They really loved us and actually, I never remember anyone saying ”thank you for your service”; It was more like “have a pint”. Cheers, Don Verhees

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