When “Thank you for your service” isn’t enough

Samara Freemark
Public Insight Network
An NFL end-zone marker is decorated with a "Support the Troops" ribbon during a game played on Veterans Day in 2012 between the New England Patriots and the Buffalo Bills. (Photo by Getty Images)

An NFL end-zone marker is decorated with a “Support the Troops” ribbon during a game played on Veterans Day in 2012 between the New England Patriots and the Buffalo Bills. (Photo by Getty Images)

For the past couple of months, we’ve been asking about the modern veteran experience: what it’s like to serve in — and then leave — the military in this day and age.

That whole line of inquiry was born of one simple notion that kept rising to the surface as we talked about veterans’ issues. As one veteran put it:

Sometimes “Thank you for your service” is not enough.

We’ve heard this again and again from veterans young and old across the country. They’ve told us they appreciate the support people show them. But often those words of support don’t get them a job. Or speed up their disability claims filed with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Or help them manage their symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Or keep them off the street. Some veterans told us they had grown to loathe the phrase.

John Hamilton from Madison, Wis., told us, “I think for every veteran, their experiences are so unique and personal that it can be maddening trying to explain it to anyone. The whole rest of the world is outside your experience. The one thing I cringe at every time is when someone says, ‘Thank you for your service.’ It sounds so cliched and phony that I just want to get away from them.”

I thought of Hamilton and his fellow veterans when I stumbled this week on the Internet tempest swirling around a Facebook post by filmmaker Michael Moore.

“I don’t support the troops, America, and neither do you,” Moore wrote. “I am tired of the ruse we are playing on these brave citizens in our armed forces. And guess what — a lot of these soldiers and sailors and airmen and Marines see right through the bullshit of those words, ‘I support the troops!,’ spoken by Americans with such false sincerity — false because our actions don’t match our words.”

Predictably, the post generated significant reaction, but some responses shed light instead of heat. In a thread about the post on the message board site Reddit, user Im_a_wet_towel wrote:

“People don’t realize the difficulties some of us have after we come back home. I hate hearing someone thank me. I signed up in 2001, before the controversial wars that I was forced to go to. Now that I’m back, I have no skills. You always hear that being in the Army is great on a resume. But it isn’t.

“You see, when I was busy being deployed, other people were gaining skills for the civilian life. Now they get preference. I tried going to school to get a degree, but PTSD causes crippling anxiety. I’ve had a VA claim in for about two years now, but it’s stuck at the ‘data collection’ stage because no one seems to know what happened to my medical records. This is why veterans are homeless, and feel helpless, and eventually pull the trigger on themselves. I don’t know. For what its worth.”

His experience mirrors what we’ve been hearing from many of the veterans we’ve spoken with.

And when I asked Donald John Schmidt III of Seattle what one question he wished people would ask him about his service, he wrote:

“I would like people to ask, ‘How can non-military people support the troops,’ because those yellow magnetic decals are not helping. … When you are a veteran who has left military service, and you go out in the world with no skilled civilian job experience, and you see yellow ribbons on the backs of SUV’s all over the college town you can barely afford to pay rent in … you wonder who is supporting you.

“What’s the point of serving, sacrificing the freedom irresponsible young adulthood affords when your opportunities are no more accessible than they were before you enlisted?  The yellow ribbons begin to feel empty and insulting when you are in that situation, struggling to get by and reap the ‘military benefits’ you sacrificed for while you watch well-dressed kids proudly proclaim their support for ‘the troops.’

“The yellow ribbons?  To me they represent how little America is really willing to do for people who sacrifice for the greater good.”

Lest you think this is a new problem, Rudyard Kipling said it all more than a hundred years ago, and in verse.

As we continue to explore the very complex relationship between veterans and the civilian world they return to post-combat, we hope you’ll share your story.




Samara Freemark Reporter
Public Insight Network

Reporter/producer Samara Freemark joined the Public Insight Network after four years at Radio Diaries in New York City, where she spent her time helping ordinary people tell their extraordinary stories for NPR. In the process, she developed an unshakeable belief in the beauty and power of personal narrative.

Before Radio Diaries Samara worked as an environmental reporter, a posting that took her to sinking islands, Superfund sites, and literal snakepits – Burmese pythons, to be exact. She also churned out copy and tape in the newsroom of WUOM Ann Arbor. Before settling on a career in radio she tried out policy research, community organizing, and urban planning before deciding she preferred soundwaves to spreadsheets.