“Thank you for your service.”
Every veteran learns his or her own way to respond to those reflexively stated words from our fellow citizens. The sentiment is heartfelt, but the speaker often has little understanding of for what they are thanking a veteran. The recipient might want to share something more meaningful, but an awkward exchange is likely.
I don’t recall what I mumbled to people when I first joined the Marines in 2001, but by the time I was discharged in 2011, I learned to respond with an equally reflexive “you’re welcome.” It was easier that way, and it moved the conversation quickly past my service.
My hair is longer now, and I’m just another dad dropping his kids off at school. But I still get an occasional “thank you for your service” when someone sees my old tattoo, asks how I met my wife in San Diego or sees our wedding picture on my living room bookshelf, with me in my dress blues.
But now I know that “you’re welcome” isn’t all I want to say.
This Veterans Day, I’m going to try to say, “You’re welcome to ask me hard questions.”
Do I think that two decades of conflict after 9/11 have been worth the effort in blood, treasure and honor spent? Looking back, would I have made the same choices, to enlist and reenlist? These are difficult questions that take veterans off the pedestals that the American public has placed them on. They allow our fellow citizens to look at veterans more carefully — and that’s a good thing.
This Veterans Day, I’m going to try to say, “you’re welcome to ask hard questions about our elected officials’ foreign policy decisions.” After all, they sent hundreds of thousands of men and women like me across the seas to exact retribution after 9/11 — retribution that became less righteous with every passing year.
I came home from the invasion of Iraq in 2003 feeling like we were doing good in the world. By 2006, I could see that our prospects for success in Iraq were not good, and that we wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon. I was resigned to a future of deploying over and over until I was killed. The only thing I worried about was how I would die; I hoped that I wouldn’t cower. I hoped that I would die on my feet, doing my job.
Americans should be welcome to ask these questions and others. If you pay taxes, you have a right to know how your hard-earned dollars are being spent. If you vote (and you should), you have participated in the democratic process that selects the leaders — who set the policies and send the troops.
Most important, you have a right and an obligation to speak out, to question and to criticize issues of national security. Everything that the military does around the world is done in your name. No experience in uniform is necessary; being an American is enough.
It disheartens me when I see anyone with a public voice trying to deflect criticism based on a notion that it somehow dishonors the troops. It troubles me to hear some fellow veterans channel Jack Nicholson’s character in “A Few Good Men,” who snarls that he has “neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it.”
I promise I won’t be offended if you ask questions. You won’t be dishonoring my service or failing to support the troops. Don’t let anyone tell you that it isn’t your place to ask questions if you haven’t served.
Rather, thank me for my service by being a curious, informed citizen. This sort of introspection as critical to making our democracy healthier. Pericles once said of the Athenian democracy that inspired ours: “If a man takes no interest in public affairs, we alone do not commend him as quiet but condemn him as useless.” So it is today.
Jonathan Wong served in the Marine Corps as an infantryman from 2001 to 2011. He is a security fellow with the Truman National Security Project. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.
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