When people find out I served in the military, their usual response is, “Thank you for your service.” This is popular on Veterans Day.
Honestly, I never know how to respond. I typically say ‘thank you’ back. I never say, “You’re welcome.” Something meant to be pleasant sometimes becomes an awkward exchange. It’s not like other holidays when I can confidently reply ‘Happy Thanksgiving’ or ‘Happy Holidays.’
I reflected on why I have such a hard time accepting credit for my service – and I found two major culprits.
The Glorified Soldier
Firstly, when I hear the word “veteran,” it conjures up images of classic war movies with brave heroes like John Wayne in The Green Berets or Charlie Sheen in Platoon, engaging in jungle warfare in Vietnam.
I also think about the men of WWII considered ‘The Greatest Generation’ with their elegant olive drab green uniforms and Jeeps; one of my favorite shows is Band of Brothers on HBO.
Although I tried my best to do my job everyday, I couldn’t relate to nor live up to those expectations. Those men jumped out of airplanes into aerial artillery to fight off the Nazis.
But every Veteran has their own story – and this one is mine.
Combat, Coffee, & Staying Sane
My first combat tour was Operation Iraqi Freedom from the year 2004 to 2005. I remember one long year of staring at a computer, daily gym workouts, and running on the treadmill.
We came under attack several times, and it was dangerous; however, the hardest part of the deployment was keeping our minds busy and sane. The best medicine for my mental health was coffee, music, workouts, bootleg movies, and books. Care packages and letters were a rare treat.
A prominent memory I have is when the helicopters landed on our last night to take us to the airport to start our long journey back home. The memory of that night has remained vivid in my mind for over 17 years.
I think the second reason I find it difficult to respond to ‘thank you for your service’ is that I try to avoid traumatic memories. For a person with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it is typical to steer clear of conversations that may trigger unwanted memories.
Recently, I reflected on a memory I had been avoiding for quite some time. I was attached to a unit in Herat, Afghanistan in 2009, co-located with our Italian NATO partners. I remember the first day I landed. It was a cold morning, about 3 a.m., and I was transported alone by a cargo plane. All I could see was shadows of tents and huts and the silhouette of the mountains. I remember the stars shined like bright diamonds like I had never seen before in the United States.
I would spend four months at that location. It was difficult at first; however, we gained momentum and accomplished several missions.
Our base was attacked late one night; most of the staff had already gone to bed. I heard the first explosion from a distance. Several explosions followed, and they kept getting closer.
The enemy was creeping Rocket Artillery from the mountains. We were extremely vulnerable because we lived in tents and worked out of wooden huts. There were several concrete bunkers spread throughout the base for added protection, so my first reaction was to put on my gear and go wait it out in the bunker.
I was the first one there and I waited for everyone to follow. I was safe but I was alone, and I was worried about the others. No one joined me. I left the safety of the bunker and went to check on one of my friends. He was dead asleep. I remember waking him to the sound of explosions. “We are being attacked,” I said. He woke with a start and put on his armor vest and helmet and set off to check on the others.
The rest is a blur. I remember we split up to wake everyone, directing them to the bunkers, while the reaction team set out to take care of the shooters. By the time I made it back to the bunker, it was full. I crammed in at an exposed end. The explosions kept getting closer and started to hit some of our tents and equipment.
I remember feeling terrified from the uncertainty and the deafening explosions. We were lucky we did not lose anyone that night.
Thinking back on this memory, I realize I didn’t think twice about risking my safety to help my fellow soldiers. It’s what I would expected from them as well.
Normally, when people say “thank you for your service,” they don’t know why they are actually thanking me, and honestly, until recently, neither did I.
The things I experienced while serving have been the source of nightmares, anxiety, and depression. What’s more, when I returned from deployment, I had to face life, new careers, civilian culture, housing, anger, marital problems, and financial stress without the moral support I used to get in the military.
I actually missed the life purpose supplied by combat and the need to feel needed by my band of brothers. At first, I tried to cope with alcohol, as many veterans do, but I realized it was not the answer. I eventually sought expert help from the Veterans Affairs. Today, part of the way I cope is by helping others as a mental health counselor.
After much thought and self-reflection, I am finally able to accept the great complement, “Thank you for your service.”
This is what you are thanking me for: I chose a timeless and noble profession. I chose to serve. I left the comfort of my family and my home to follow through with a commitment, to make good on an oath I made when I was a skinny 18-year-old fresh out of high school. I chose to stay drug-free and obey all the laws, to lead an honorable life to be fit for duty and able to serve. I chose to risk my safety for the benefit of the greater good. So, thank you for acknowledging my service.
And to all my fellow veterans: Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors, and Marines, “Thank you for your service.”
According to the 2022 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report: In 2020, there were 6,146 Veteran suicide deaths.
To get help from a Veterans Crisis Line:
- Call 988 (press 1)
- Text 838255
- Call TTY if you have hearing loss at 1-800-799-4889
If you are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide, visit VeteransCrisisLine for more resources.
About the Author: Seferino Martinez is a Texas native who joined the military after graduating high school. He is a veteran of both the Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan). He has a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Liberty University and is a Licensed Mental Health Professional in the state of Virginia.