Friday, November 12, 2010

Reluctant Thanks ... and all the guilt.

This is what happens when I can't sleep ...

Twenty-five years ago, yesterday, the father of one of my favorite childhood friends was murdered. He was a cop, just off duty, on his way home. He spotted an accident, moments after it occurred, and he pulled over to help. The driver and passenger were out of the car, and as he approached them, asking if they were okay, one of them shot him in the chest. What he didn't know was that they were fleeing a robbery. They'd just knocked over a convenience store, if I remember correctly. They panicked when they saw a police officer approaching. The perpetrators were caught within a few hours. They were convicted and a few years later, one of them was executed. (The trigger-man, I always presumed, though I don't recall.) This memory is a big, multi-faceted one for me. One of the facets of that memory for me was that he died on Veterans' Day and he was a VietNam vet.

Yesterday, when many people had the day off, and everyone was thanking vets on Facebook and Twitter and in memorial services for their service, my thoughts turned to my friend's dad. He died serving his fellow man. Not as a soldier, not even as a cop (since he was off-duty), but as a concerned citizen. We thank his military service with Veterans' Day, but how do we thank his civil service or his citizen service?

Veterans' Day is frequently a hard one for me to wrap around. Probably largely because I carry a lot of ambivalence about the role of our military in our country. It's also probably hard for me to process Veterans' Day during wartime. And, I guess, I'm a little annoyed that we don't really publicly recognize the service of others in our society with even half as much appreciation. When is Teachers' Day, Clergy Day, EMT Day, Coal-miners' Day, Water Sanitation Provider Day? These people rarely die in the execution of their jobs, but they educate you, comfort you, keep your heart pumping, keep your house fueled and keep you from getting cholera on a daily basis. And each comes with its unique set of skills and training. Where are their honors in rhetoric and mall sales?

When I consider the training that goes into being a military service member and the discipline that it instills, I'm nothing less than impressed. When I consider the time away from family that we demand of our service members in the service of military goals, I am sympathetic. When I consider the physical conditions our service members endure during war time and other times of conflict - and I suspect my imagination is a paltry shadow of what they actually endure - I am, indeed, grateful that they are trained and willing to go through that on my behalf. (Seriously. Thank you!) And when a military service member dies in battle, or while serving, I am humbled and thankful for their sacrifice. Because of all this, my gratefulness to our veterans is genuine. Heck, even as I write it, I become more acutely aware of how grateful I am for those who served and have served in the military. Wow. Thank you, Vets!

I suppose my ambivalence, then, is about how and when to say thank you, and why. A few years ago, I was on a bus when a man in Army fatigues stepped on. A mother, with a toddler, instructed her child to say "Thank You" to him for his service. He accepted the thanks. But I couldn't help wonder: she doesn't know what this guy's career has looked like; she doesn't know if this guy has seen frontline, or even backline combat; even if he has, she doesn't know exactly how he comported himself there. While I am grateful to our military service members as a collective, I don't know how each of them behaves as an individual representing me. Though, I think it's fair to say that the vaaaaassst majority of military service members behave honorably, and within codes of conduct, how do I know a random stranger in uniform is the paragon of integrity?

My favorite childhood friend's father was a policeman who died helping people. And I trust that the vast majority of police officers in this country honor their badges and their communities. However, a dear, dear friend of mine was also raped by a cop. He did time and lost his badge, thankfully. But I'm sure there are other crooked cops out there who get away with this crap, frequently. I am terribly thankful to our police force for keeping us safe. Seriously, as much as I hate getting tickets, I am so grateful that there are people who enforce the rule of law. But do we teach our children to say thank you to police officers for their service when we just see them randomly on the street? Maybe some do, but I don't know that it's as broadly accepted a convention as thanking random military service members. And if we do, then when we thank the random cop, are we thanking one like my friend's dad, or are we thanking one like my friend's rapist? We never know a stranger's back story or past deeds. Thanking a stranger, based on his or her profession seems kind of hollow to me. (And again, my annoyance: no stranger has ever thanked my mom for being a teacher, nor my dad for being clergy, and I wouldn't be surprised if no stranger has ever randomly thanked my mother in law for being a nurse.)

I consider myself a patriot: I dutifully pay my taxes, without whining (I'm actually okay with paying for services my government provides - like roads, libraries and the military!) I vote in most elections, I even contact my representatives when an issue moves me enough. But I don't thank random strangers for their military service, just because I see evidence of their service. I feel guilty about lacking that impulse. Like I'm an ungrateful, bad citizen.

Honey served in the military for several years, and occasionally, when someone learns of this, they might thank him. The last time I remember someone thanking him was at a wedding last year. It was a table-mate; someone we didn't know and were just chit-chatting with. I later asked Honey what he thinks when strangers thank him for his service. He always graciously accepts the thanks, but he's ambivalent, too. He told me he's known plenty of people in the service who are assholes, who do the bare minimum, who you wouldn't necessarily be proud to have defending you, if you really knew them, so he kind of sees the random thanks as less meaningful. Along the same lines, a friend of mine who spent the 80s and 90s in the Air Force addressed the thanks he got on Facebook with self-deprecating humor: All I really did was drink a lot and learn to swear in foreign languages. I'm sure he did more than that, but the point I take from that is that not everyone in uniform saw combat and defended in the sense that we like to imagine. More significant to me was the rest of his response: But thanks. It means a lot. I haven't asked him, so I don't know, but I took this to mean that the thanks is meaningful because it comes from a friend. This isn't an apples to apples comparison, but random people on the street have congratulated me on having a new baby. I accept it, but their congratulations means far less to me than that of friends and family.

I should divorce my dislike of thanking random vets for their service from my desire to thank the collective. It's not fair to my friends and family who have served honorably in whatever capacity. I am a "partly cloudy patriot." I'll admit it. (Incidentally, if anyone wants to get me that book - or that other newer one Sarah Vowell wrote - you'd definitely get a huge thanks from me!) Maybe it's my tendency to be contrary, but almost any time the masses wave flags, wax sentimental and hum America the Beautiful, I kind of crinkle up my nose and think, "really?" Unless it's the Fourth of July, because, then, dammit: citizen, soldier, immigrant or fan, America is the best damn country on the planet! But I digress. Though few read this blog (largely because they don't know about it), I'll use this space to thank my friends and family who have served, using initials and pseudonyms, because you know how I am about my anonymity.

Thank you: Honey, Grandfather SM (WWII, Pacific), Honey's grandfather LM (WWII, Europe, Africa), Honey's other grandfather RF (WWII, Europe), Cousin PH, Cousin MG (OEF), Uncle TM, Uncle RAM, Uncle CR, Uncle BP, SB, SW, JM** (VietNam), AB (Afghanistan), PB, JP, RGR ... and probably lots of other friends I'm having difficulty recalling in the twilight of dawn after a mostly sleepless nights. You're all awesome and I'm relieved to have had you, specifically, guarding us.

** and thanks for coaching my tee-ball team when I was five and fathering my friends. They miss you.


secret agent woman said...

I am very ambivalent about this day as well, and have mostly been skipping Veteran's Day posts. I grew up in a military family, even living on bases, and have dated/loved men in the military. And yet I am a Quaker and pacifist and very much opposed to the current war. It's just so much more complicated that all the flag-waving would lead us to believe.

Virginia Gal said...

Gosh I am sorry to hear about your friend's father and I agree with you about the thanking of Vets,I don't know something about it turns me off, is it perhaps that I find it too jingoistic? And yes, as my aunt and my cousin are both teachers in Florida were the pay is crap and the rewards disheartening, I am saddened that they don't get more "thank you's" they deserve it!

ps - I had to laugh of course one of the killers got executed, I'm assuming this incident happened in Texas, enough said. ha ha.