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Saturday, May 4, 2019

Thanks, But It Was Never About That


As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.
-- John F. Kennedy


I was at the hardware store.

I needed parts for my in-ground lawn sprinkler.

The irrigation system came with the house. Like everything else that came with the house, the system was a kludge – and that’s probably an insult to kludges. I’d spent two years fixing and replacing the mess left by the previous owners, from faulty wiring to leaking, poorly installed plumbing to cheap watering heads no doubt purchased from every bargain bin for three counties around. Given that my lawn covers four acres in the boiling Florida sun, it’s a project. I’d gotten to most of it, but I’d left one original sprinkler head on the far side of the front yard. It seemed to work okay … right up until a week ago when it suddenly blew out of the ground and was replaced by a geyser of high pressure water shooting 20 feet into the air.

I shut the water off at the well and went to survey the damage.

It was a muddy mess, a dirty hole in the ground surrounded by sand and ruined plants, the failure caused by the usual hash of mismatched parts, poorly fitted together. The previous owner was some sort of accountant. I hope he was better with numbers than he was with plumbing. I dug it up, cut out the bad assembly, cleaned off the feed pipe and went back to the shed for the appropriate replacement parts.

Naturally I didn’t have the one PVC joint I needed.

Naturally.

I invoked the standard profanity laced prayer to the Gods of Foolishness and headed for the hardware store.

And so, there I was a few minutes later, covered in drying sand and mud, holding a handful of plumbing parts, facing the cashier.

Cashier: “Military?”

“Retired,”I answered reflexively.

Cashier: “thankwewferyersevich.”

I made some sort of non-committal grunt in response.

This is the social contract we veterans have with America nowadays. The tedious hoop we have to jump through, that awkward moment at every checkout. The words are empty, it all runs together, a required part of the spell necessary to make the banking system process your debit card, I guess. The cashier just wants to get through their shift and get paid, I just want to fix my sprinkler. Thankyouforyourservice nothankyou haveaniceday youtoooo, you mouth the incantation without thinking.

Well, most of the time.

The cashier did cashier things, giving me a discount, I guess. Then…

“No,” he said, “I really mean it.”

I can make it through the empty thankwewforyourservice. It didn’t used to bother me much, and I wrote about that a few times, but in the last few years it’s just everywhere. And this is where I don’t want to be. Right here. Talking about my service with some random person in public. I just want to fix my goddamned sprinkler. Like every other civilian schmo.  I just want to be that guy, the guy who can walk into a hardware store in America and buy plumbing parts without it being part of some enforced national narrative on military service. But no. Now he really means it and I have to be The Humble Veteran. Aw shucks, Citizen, it weren’t nothing. Grateful to serve America, kill some commies for Jesus. Ooorah! Anyone would have done it.

That’s what is expected, right?

What I actually said was, “Thanks. Appreciate it. I'm in a hurry here.”

I wasn't, in a hurry. I just didn’t want to be rude. I just wanted to buy my stuff and get out, go back to fixing my yard. I didn't ask for the discount. The cashier noticed my haircut, or my bearing, or that my debit card was from a military institution, I don’t know. And that's fine. Being a veteran should maybe be good for something other than a limp and a bad attitude, I guess, and I'm not such a jackass that I won't accept a couple of bucks off the price. I can use it. And I do appreciate it. I do. I don’t expect a discount. I don’t demand it. But if it’s offered, sure, I’ll take it. Why not? Not like the benefits of being a veteran are all that spectacular, wealth wise.

Look, I'm not trying to be an ass and I'm proud enough of having served. I spent 20 years at it. I'm certainly not ashamed of who I am or bitter about it or disgruntled or PTSD'd or whatever.

But how I feel about my service is … complicated.

And it’s personal.

And it’s my business, not yours.

More, it's not the only thing I am and right now I'm just buying parts for my sprinkler system and I don't want to be reminded of certain things, again, for the tenth time today by yet another random cashier. I'm not offended, or angry, so much as just tired of the ubiquitous inanity of this mandated ritual every damned time, of being thanked for my service over and over. I got it, America. You're welcome. Let's move the hell on now. Please.

But, of course, we can’t. Move on. Because this is America and this is our collective guilt trip.

He didn’t take the hint. He went on, “I don't think the military is appreciated enough in this country.”

I didn’t respond. Because anything I could have said would just make it worse. And, as noted, he’d already missed the hint.

“It's just a shame the way the military is treated.”

He was obviously waiting for me to agree. And it was like fingernails on a blackboard. All the shit I don’t want to think about, there it is. In my face. I just wanted to fix my fucking sprinkler, instead I’m ambushed with this bullshit and now I’ve had to do this dance, again.

I just wanted him to shut up.

But he wouldn’t.

“You guys deserve...”

It wasn’t the thanks.

It wasn’t the thanks. No, it was this. This narrative. This is what always comes after the thanks. This. This neck-deep conservative bullshit, pushed by people who never served themselves, this never-ending attempt to co-opt my service into martyrdom for a political ideology built on lies used to diminish other Americans.

You look at my haircut and you think I’m one of those assholes and I’m sick of it.

That’s what it is.

That.

And so I did answer him, “Just, goddamn, man, stop. Just stop. You don't think the military is appreciated in this country? Seriously? There are two national holidays dedicated to the military and I don't know how many state holidays. None for teachers or doctors or peacemakers. But two for the military and they're trying to turn all the rest of them into some statement on military service too. Every town in this country suddenly has some sort of park or monument dedicated to veterans. There are parades and fireworks and TV shows. There are two Executive departments of our government dedicated to the military. TWO. We spend more than 50% of the national budget on the military. Every car has one of those idiotic magnets on the back of it, or some sort of bumper sticker. I can see three of them from here. Every goober in this store is wearing some sort of military shirt with eagles and guns and flags on it. We idolize the military. It's a goddamned fetish! (I might have been shouting by this point). What the hell are you even talking about?”

He wasn’t particularly taken aback, I think he wanted the argument, “Well, liberals are...”

There.

There it is.

Well, liberals are…

Oh, yes. Liberals. That’s the problem.

Maybe you didn’t see it coming, but I sure did. Because I do this dance multiple times every day. It wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about gratitude. It was about using my service to make some shitty political statement.

And that’s where I ended it. “Just stop. Fucking stop. Give me my receipt.”

And I walked out.

And by then I was too fucking mad to finish the job I’d started and the lawn had to wait another day.

He was young, 20s maybe, old enough to be serving himself if he felt so strongly about it. But, of course, he wasn’t. Serving. They never do.

Maybe I should have been more patient and maybe ... I don't know. It's not my job to deprogram these damned zombies and detox the conservative talk radio bullshit out of their systems.

The military isn't appreciated in this country? Fuck me.


If only education, healthcare, the environment, or people, were "unappreciated" half so much.


But it doesn’t end there.

Of course it doesn’t.

I’m a writer.

And I write about politics.

I write about the cultural narrative.

I write about things that hurt me, because that’s how I deal with them.

And so I wrote about this. A shorter version of the above story appeared on my Facebook page and as a thread on my Twitter feed.

And for the last four days, it’s been viral across social media, viewed hundreds of thousands of times.

I got a lot of feedback. Some good. Some not.

I shared some of it on Twitter, because Twitter is designed to make such comments easy. I didn’t post the feedback to Facebook, because it’s a lot more difficult on that platform.

I’ll share some of that here, because it’s important to me that you see it. The reasons for which will become apparent by and by.

Now, before I do, I’ll remind you that it wasn’t about being thanked. Not really. And if it had ended at being thanked, or not thanked, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

"Thank you for your service."

That’s what the cashier said, like every other cashier.

I acknowledged it. I did. I wasn’t a bitter curmudgeon it. He said thanks, I nodded, or grunted, or whatever. I didn't profusely thank the cashier for his thank you or break down in tearful gratitude and a heartful rendition of Lee Greenwood’s Proud To Be An American, but I acknowledged his appreciation. As I said, if it had ended there, there wouldn't have been posts on social media.

But it didn't end there.

I acknowledged the thanks. And I acknowledged it the second time he brought it up as well.

I said I appreciated it.

After that, I don't want to talk about it. It makes me uncomfortable for reasons that are none of your damned business – but I’ll explain anyway here in a minute.

That doesn’t matter though, does it? My comfort. That’s something else I have to sacrifice as a veteran. America needs veterans to be symbols, heroes, not people, so my discomfort doesn’t matter – so long as you feel good.

I don't claim to speak for any other veteran.

I told you what happened and I told you how I felt about it. Me. That's all.

I didn't tell other veterans how to feel. Hell, I didn’t even demand that Americans stop thanking random veterans.

And again, because I’ll have to keep reminding you, it wasn't about being thanked. Or not thanked.

But can you maybe see that some of us don’t want to be reminded all of the time?

Can you maybe understand that some of us just want to go to the store and do our business without it being a referendum on our service every goddamned time?

Or does that even matter? Is your need to feel validated more important?

Who is this really about?


I know plenty of vets who wear their service on their sleeve.

As I said, I don’t speak for them. Maybe they do expect to be thanked. Maybe they even demand it as their rightful due. You can hardly blame them, that’s the national message, isn’t it. You’re owed a thank you, Veteran. Owed it. Certainly a significant portion of this country increasingly sees it that way.

Me? I see America as more than some warrior class – even though I am a member of that class. Or was.

And I have to wonder why we don’t respect other citizens half so much?

What we did, we veterans, what we do, out there in the dark and dangerous corners of the world, is often rough, there’s no doubt about that. But, is it any more important to the fabric of society than, oh, say, being a garbage collector? I mean, let your garbageman not show up for a few days in a hot Southern summer and see if your appreciation for the profession doesn’t increase. Why is the soldier more important than the teacher who trains the next generation? Than the farmer who feeds the nation? Than the doctor and the nurses who treat the sick? Than the average faceless nobody who drops a dollar into the cup of a homeless veteran on the streets of America and thus provides a moment of joy and compassion?

Why do we revere the warrior and scorn the peacemaker?

Decades ago, a different war, a different nation, and perhaps America didn’t so much revere the warrior.

I understand if you served in that war and came home to that country how you might still resent it. I would.

I don’t presume to speak for you, or to your experience.

And I never asked anything of you except for the same courtesy in return.


I don’t mind being recognized as a veteran.

Do you mind being recognized for who you are?

Are you expected to change your appearance so as not to be the object of unwanted attention?

Maybe you are.

Women know what I’m talking about. Ironic then that every comment I got about my haircut came from a woman. If you don’t like the attention of your military appearance, hide it, grow your hair out, don’t wear certain clothes, don’t carry yourself in a certain manner. Pretend to be somebody else.

Otherwise, it’s your fault.

As I said, ironic.

Maybe I’d be prettier if I smiled more.

Again, this wasn't about being thanked. Or not thanked.

It wasn't even about having part of your life constantly pulled out and held up for examination by random people.

Or that society deems you should be grateful for that attention and is resentful when you aren’t.

No, it was about that last bit, that part about the military in America not being appreciated.

The military isn’t appreciated enough in this country. That narrative, pushed by the nationalists, by military fetishists, by a certain strident political ideology bent on creating a hallowed warrior class – and then perhaps using it to crush their hated neighbors.

We are coming to a point where respect for the military will be mandatory.

When we declare taking a knee as unpatriotic, how long before we're required to line up and salute those tanks rumbling down the streets of our capital and the tromp of marching boots, those military parades as our president demands?

How long before gratitude turns to resentment for those veterans who don’t toe the party line?

How long before that forced gratitude becomes a weapon?


She was ashamed of my service.

I’m a decorated veteran. I served my country honorably for more than 20 years, in peace and in war.

But she’s ashamed of me. Ashamed that I was ever in the military.

Because I’m don’t want to discuss my service with some random cashier. Because I don’t want to be reminded of what I did every minute of every day, of the friends and comrades I lost, of things I saw and wish I hadn’t. Because I just want to be a regular citizen, just a guy who can walk into a hardware store and buy some screws like any average joe. She’s ashamed of me.

But is she even an American?

I included Catheri22165164 for a reason.

Because she’s very likely a Russian bot. A troll. Attempting to weaponize my comments and turn America’s obsession with thanking veterans into another way to divide and stir hate.

The next one is a real person, someone who followed me and no longer does because I disappointed her.



She’s disappointed.

Disappointed in me.

Disappointed that I'm not doing it right, being a veteran.

Disappointed that I'm not the symbol I'm supposed to be.

Disappointed that I'm not what some random person needs me to be every single minute of every day.

Disappointed that I’d be so selfish as to want to walk into a hardware store, minding my own business, without having to be a fucking hero.


Put my ego away.

Because it’s me.

Because maybe some hippies 50 years ago did or didn’t do something, now I’m – me – I’m somehow now responsible to … be the object of respect? What? I don’t know who I’m supposed to be in this scenario. Am I the flower child or the baby killer? Help me out here.

As to making it real, why does every cashier get to define my reality?



The commenter is making a lot of assumptions there, but let’s say she’s right.

Let’s say the cashier lost some respect for me.

So?

I don’t know the cashier.

I wasn’t looking to impress the cashier with tales of military glory – yes, I know, who doesn’t love to hear a veteran in the checkout line tell war stories all day, bragging up their exploits, impressing the cashier. And the cashier would be impressed, oh he would. Still.

I didn’t go into the store looking for respect. I don’t need gratitude and validation from random people to feel good about myself.

I just wanted some parts for my sprinkler system. That’s all. What does it say about this country when a broken water pipe in my front yard, when every goddamned trip to the store, becomes a mandatory political statement about my military service?

I could go on. There were hundreds of responses. But I’m going to finish up with this last one.

This is the one that finally got to me.

This is the one that perfectly encapsulates the problem America has with its veterans.

This one, right here.



It’s funny, you see?

Big joke. Laughing out loud. Hilarious.

I shared something which bothers me, something I’m uncomfortable with, something that matters to me as a veteran.

But that’s not important to her. Sounds like you need a Snickers.


She didn’t know what the subject was, hadn’t bothered to see if it was a personal tragedy or some horrible disaster. You see somebody else in pain, irritated, uncomfortable, that shit is funny, man. You hangry. Hilarious.

And I wonder if her husband is getting out of line because he’s hungry or because he’s just sick of standing next to a self-centered asshole.



She hadn’t bothered to read any of the thread.

Thirty-seven tweets? That’s like … a whole paragraph. Laughing my ass off at the idea of such an effort. That’s four laugh-crying emojis funny, man!

I mean, why would you even bother to read the whole thing and actually get some idea of the context before offering up advice? Eat something, Buddy, you’ll feel better! That’s right.


That’s right.


You’re standing there, right?

And the cashier is thanking you for your service. Right?

Your service.

Sure. Your service and what about it?

You joined up. You were proud of swearing the oath, wearing that uniform, serving your country. It mattered to you, a lot.

See, you’d always been a small kid, skinny, buck-toothed. Lousy at sports. A reader. A dork. Bullied. Picked on. Pushed around. Loser. Now, suddenly, you were an adult. Is this who you were going to be for your whole life? Get some shitty job. Never leave your hometown. Spend the rest of your life living next to the jerks who think you’re a loser? Live your life vicariously through stories about heroes and adventurers, those who had the courage to do what you could not?

You wanted to prove something. Not to the bullies, not to those who thought you were a loser, but to yourself.

Your dad, man, you admired that guy. He was a veteran, a Navy man in the Korean War, and goddamn was he proud of you for signing up. And your uncles, Navy men both. One a medic on the beach at Normandy, yes, that Normandy, during that war, on that day, and another, a Seabee, on Midway Island, yes, that Midway, during that war, during that battle.  A cousin, another Navy man, in Vietnam. That was just the Navy, there were Marines and Air Force and Army in your family too. That’s the legacy you followed out of your small Midwestern town. And after that, nobody called you a loser or tried to push you around and the military became your home. And you believed. You did. You knew it wasn’t all heroism and righteousness, you knew your country wasn’t always that shining city on the hill, but you thought you were one of the good guys. You did. You worked your ass off for it. A decade, two. You set the example, led from the front, and one day you were an officer. Married. Kid. College degree. And you were starting to think about what you might do next when your country was attacked. And thousands of the people you swore to defend died. Horribly. And suddenly America was at war and it was your job, yours, to lead others into battle and you realized on that day how those men looked at you the way you’d once looked up to the heroes in those stories you so loved as a kid. It was your job to take the fight to the enemy and make him pay for what he’d done. You knew you were one of the good guys. You did. You knew it when you looked down and saw your son looking back up at you as if you were ten feet tall, tears in his eyes as you left for war. A final hug for your wife, who was terrified that you wouldn’t come home, but was proud that you were going anyway.

And you did.

You went.

You did the thing.

You went to war, as your family had done for generations.

You weren’t even scared, because you were one of the good guys and this is what you were supposed to do. Your whole life had come down to this moment.

Oh, you had doubts, because information was your specialty and the things you saw didn’t line up with what your government was telling the world. But war is complicated. You didn’t know everything, you were just a cog in the machine. You had to believe those in charge, those elected to run the country, knew what they were doing. That they knew the real truth and one day, if you lived, you would too.

That was your job – to believe.

To lead by example. To get the mission done. To get your people home alive.

And that’s what you did. And you were proud of it and why the hell shouldn’t you be? Not many could have done what you did or as well. You’d done things they write books about. You’d done things they make movies about. You were that guy.

But…

One night, a few days into the war, you stood on the deck of a Navy cruiser and you watched as other ships of the fleet launched salvo after salvo of missiles. It’s been a long time since that night, but you can still hear the roar of boosters flinging those terrible weapons into the sky, still smell the acrid sting of the propellent, still see the rocket’s red glare, still hear the womp! as each booster burned out and the missile’s sustainer engine lit off and that weird whistling sound it made as it disappeared into the night, bound for some target in enemy territory hundreds of miles away. Those under its fall were already dead – they just didn’t know it yet.

But…

You remember what you felt that night, watching the death of tens of thousands rise into the sky.

Fierce satisfaction.

Revenge.

Pride.

Joy.

Those who had killed so many Americans, those sons of bitches were going to die and you were happy see them burn. Because that was your job.


Only it wasn’t you, was it?


No. It wasn’t you.

It was me.

It was me standing on that deck. Feeling those things. Doing what had to be done. And there was more, a lot more, but I’ve told you all I’m going to and the rest is none of your business. It’s my job to live with it.

We went because we thought we were doing right.

Because those who led us, they told us we were doing right.

Just as I told the men I led that we were doing right.

But…

Yes. But.

That’s the rub. Isn’t it? That but.

We weren’t the good guys after all.

We weren’t doing right.

It was all a lie.

Those missiles, when they fell, they killed thousands of people who had never done America any harm. When it was done, when the war was finally over for us, more than a decade had passed. I don’t how many died. No one does. Hundreds of thousands. More.

I was part of that.

And I remember exactly how I felt back then in that moment.

A few weeks back, Ari Fleischer, who’d once been a member of the Administration which sent us into war on a lie showed up on Twitter.

Fleischer began with this: The Iraq war began sixteen years ago tomorrow. There is a myth about the war that I have been meaning to set straight for years. After no WMDs were found, the left claimed “Bush lied. People died.” This accusation itself is a lie. It’s time to put it to rest.

He went on, making excuses, blaming Americans, blaming liberals, blaming everyone but those actually responsible. Lying. Because lying is what he does. He lied for a president and he got paid for it. And that president, those dirty rotten sons of bitches, they lied to America.

They lied to the United Nations.

They lied to the world.

They lied to you and they lied to me.

And most of all, they lied to themselves. They lied knowing they were lying, with deliberation and malice aforethought.

It’s sixteen years later, and they’re still lying about it. And I remember exactly how I felt that night when we killed tens of thousands of innocent people.

I believed them.

Hundreds of other military men and woman believed them.

And yes, it’s easy for you to sit here now and call us fools – and we were certainly that – but you weren’t there. You weren’t out there, on the pointy end of the stick when the towers fell. And you don’t have to live with being a fool now and I guess that makes you better than me.

That’s what I live with.

I always did right, as best I was able, even though they made me part of their lies. I made the choices I made so that I could look my dad, my son, in the eye. I served honorably. I was decorated. I got my men home alive. I did it.

And for what?

For a lie.


Don’t be grouchy.

Kidding! Lighten up.

It’s corporate policy for businesses to keep reminding you of the things you have to live with – as if you don’t wake up at 3AM thinking about them already. It’s nothing. A feelgood moment. But you, me, I end up thinking about it all day. I remember that night, feeling joy knowing those people were about to die.

And that’s just too bad for me. Eat a Snickers and get over it.

Laughing out loud and can’t even be bothered to read the context. Some of us, we spent years out there fighting America’s wars. We spent more months than I can tally away from our families, not knowing if we were going to make it home, doing our jobs on the knife edge. But this woman, this American citizen, she can’t even be bothered to spend a single minute reading a single paragraph. Because it doesn’t matter. You’re a veteran. America doesn’t need context, doesn’t need to know you or your history. No. You’re not a person, you’re a symbol. You’re a joke, a punchline. It’s funny. You’re hangry! You need to eat something. That’ll fix it.

If ever there was a metaphor for how America regards its veterans, it’s this horrible fucking woman right here.

Hilarious.

Not so goddamned funny when it’s the other way though.

You wonder why so many veterans have trouble coming home?

You wonder why veterans drink, do drugs, fall apart?

You wonder why veterans kill themselves?

Do you?

Maybe it’s because you’re not listening.


Thankfulness is the beginning of gratitude. Gratitude is the completion of thankfulness. Thankfulness may consist merely of words. Gratitude is shown in acts.
-- Henri Frederic Amiel


_________________________

Epilog:

This discussion, if that’s what this is, has been raging on my Twitter timeline for four days now.

Yesterday, I’d had enough.

I didn’t want to think about it any more.

I didn’t want to be reminded of certain things any more.

I didn’t want to be part of this national narrative, if only for a while.

So I took the day off and went where there is no internet, no cellphones, and few people.

And I found myself standing on a deserted sandbar in the middle of the Blackwater River, in a remote part of the Blackwater State Forest. Holding a camera – which is what I do when I’m not writing. Photography. I’m good at it. And I enjoy it, the mechanical perfection of it, the skill, the art of it. The mind clearing concentration it takes.

The day was hot. The water was icy cold. The sky was gray. The alligators were lethargic and unlikely to be any trouble.

And it was just what I needed.

Then an older couple in a canoe appeared from around a bend upstream.

I waved as they came abreast of my sandbar.

The woman asked, "Navy?"

See, I expected to spend the day doing wildlife photography, wading in the river and through the cedar swamps and not interacting with strangers. So I grabbed the first shirt out of the drawer where my wife puts "work clothes," a stained, ratty old navy PT shirt.

"Retired," I answered, reflexively.

"THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE!" she shouted, as they cruised past and disappeared down the river.