Veterans Day: Thinking Past Thanks For Your Service


Veterans Day comes on Thursday, so I am early with my remembrance of this day and what it means. For me, it will be just another work day and one that’s out of the office covering an aviation event. That suits me because with each passing year, I have more difficulty corralling my sentiments about how we think about going to war and how we attempt to honor the men and women who do so in our behalf. For the first time in nearly two decades, Veterans Day comes without the country being embroiled in combat operations somewhere.

But even that’s a misnomer, because the U.S. still has 173,000 troops deployed in 159 countries. Some of them are getting shot at occasionally. Few of us—including me—can name the places we’ve sent them or the reasons we’ve sent them there. And that causes me to think about what Tammy Duckworth said during a debate when she ran for Senate in Illinois in 2016. This is the entire quote: “My family has served this nation in uniform, going back to the Revolution. I’m a daughter of the American Revolution. I’ve bled for this nation … but still want to be there in the Senate when the drums of war sound. Because people are quick to sound the drums of war and I want to be there to say this is what it costs, this is what you’re asking us to do. Families like mine are the ones that bleed first. But let’s make sure the American people know what we’re engaging in. And let’s hold our allies accountable because we can’t do it all.”

Duckworth, you’ll recall, was an Army UH-60 Black Hawk pilot who suffered grievous injuries in Iraq in 2004 when an RPG round came through the chin bubble and removed her legs and badly injured an arm. That she survived at all is tribute to her own resilience, Army medicine and the crashworthiness of the Black Hawk.

I remember that quote from five years ago because she is essentially turning the usual thing we do on Veterans Day—“Thank you for your service”—on its head. All well and good to recognize veterans after the fact, but perhaps better to be engaged before with a cleareyed understanding of what we ask them to do in the hope that perhaps we’ll just need fewer of them going forward. She also reminds us that with an all-volunteer force, fewer citizens and families than ever bear the burden of doing the things that might eventually get them noticed and thanked on just one day of the year. This is a sea change from previous generations for whom conscription distributed the heavy lifting, fairly or not.

Each generation of military members faces the challenges anew and since the U.S. projects global power like no other country, the tip of that spear is the aviation arms of the Navy, Marines and Air Force. With its carriers, the Navy often gets there first. Probably since the Civil War, the military bureaucracy has churned out stories like this, reminding the citizenry that a local son—and now daughter—has navigated the rigors of training and has joined the cadre. This one announces the appointment of a young j.g. named Suzelle Thomas as the first woman to be assigned postgraduate to the F-35C. Such stories are signposts on the road to gender equality not just in the military, but society as a whole. We are right to draw attention to them but real soon now, a woman succeeding in aviation should stop being news.

The story also contained a quote that I found a little chilling. “I have realized I will never fly with another person again since the F-35 is a one seater,” she said. Given recent history and the way things are in the world, there is a high probability that Lt. Thomas will see combat in her career. And she’ll experience it alone in a challenging environment nothing like pilots saw in World War II, Korea or Vietnam. Or Iraq or Afghanistan.

I just hope that when we ask her to do that, we’ve thought through the consequences beyond thanking her for her service.

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  1. Once again, Bertorelli has signalled EXACTLY the right tone.

    I did my time in the Army. I had my Commercial and Flight Instructor ratings before I was drafted–in 1966, United Airlines was handing out “prospective pilot interview dates” to PRIVATE PILOTS at the local college–contingent on obtaining a Commercial rating and passing the interview.

    I couldn’t get one–I was shortly up for the draft, and even though I already had my ratings, United wouldn’t give me an interview due to my draft status. I tried to enlist for Army fixed wing, but they had only helicopter openings. I volunteered my number for the draft instead–“two years and out.” I ended up qualified as a Combat Medic (not something to aspire to in those years) but had the good fortune that since all of the flight instructors on the base were deploying to Vietnam, they had nobody to run the flight simulators so pilots could qualify for flight pay–and I already had an Instrument Ground Instructor rating. From there, I ended up running the Base Flying Club. If you HAVE to spend time in the military, this was the way to do it. Unfortunately, by the time I got out–the hiring “boomlet” was over–I became a civilian flight instructor/charter pilot.

    I mention it, not to complain, but to point out that the military changes individuals–gives them a sense of accomplishment–gives them a sense of “something bigger than myself.” It teaches how to be self-reliant, AND how to work with others. Like most who served during that “pre-professional era”–I hated every minute of it–but was thankful for the experience and opportunity. I have long thought that the country was better off with people sharing an experience like this–a real feel for country AND what you and the country could contribute to each other. Compare that unifying experience with the lack of civility and the infighting today.

    I’ve often thought about how the country would be different today if EVERYONE had a requirement to contribute to the country–both men AND women–no exceptions–as so many other countries do today–EVERYONE with an obligation. Many will say “You can’t have that kind of diversity today, our military needs SPECIALISTS”–and that’s true. But what we need is a sense of EVERY PERSON having a common experience in serving and being served by the country.

    I’ve always thought that service to country (even if it is non-combat Peace Corps) should be a prerequisite for participating in government programs. “Back in the day”–those that avoided military service often were better positioned than those that accepted it–like the United Airlines experience I detailed above. Instead of handing out “freebies” from the government, require that the applicant do something for the country! EARN that education or trade–EARN all of those government programs instead of begging people to participate. Those programs that are “Free” actually DO cost SOMEBODY the money–EARN THEM! You’ll be connected to the nation, and the nation to you.

    I’ve actually had flight students moaning that somebody else “got their flight training “FREE” through the VA”–I pointed out that option was available to the complainer–that it is their own fault if they didn’t avail themselves of it–and that the cost isn’t always measured in dollars. Here’s to those that EARNED their GI bill benefits, EARNED the respect of most of the country, and EARNED their own self-respect.

    • As a 21 year vet that went in around your time, I share all of your sentiments, Jim.

      The following poignant Veteran info was lifted from the Facebook page of a regular here …

      Veterans Day commemorates veterans of all wars.
      There are around 19 million U.S. veterans as of this year, representing less than 10% of the total U.S. adult population.
      There are around 9 million veterans over the age of 65.
      About 1.6 million veterans are women.
      Gulf War-era veterans account for the largest share of all U.S. veterans.

      On Friday at Airventure 2021, I marched in the Veterans parade from the Warbirds to Airshow center. Medal of Honor awardee, MGen. Patrick Brady speaking from a podium under the tail of a SpecOps C-130 spoke of exactly what you said. Read his Citation for the Medal of Honor for an action near Chu Lai on Jan 6, 1968:


      For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty, Maj. BRADY distinguished himself while serving in the Republic of Vietnam commanding a UH-1H ambulance helicopter, volunteered to rescue wounded men from a site in enemy held territory which was reported to be heavily defended and to be blanketed by fog. To reach the site he descended through heavy fog and smoke and hovered slowly along a valley trail, turning his ship sideward to blow away the fog with the backwash from his rotor blades. Despite the unchallenged, close-range enemy fire, he found the dangerously small site, where he successfully landed and evacuated 2 badly wounded South Vietnamese soldiers. He was then called to another area completely covered by dense fog where American casualties lay only 50 meters from the enemy. Two aircraft had previously been shot down and others had made unsuccessful attempts to reach this site earlier in the day. With unmatched skill and extraordinary courage, Maj. BRADY made 4 flights to this embattled landing zone and successfully rescued all the wounded. On his third mission of the day Maj. Brady once again landed at a site surrounded by the enemy. The friendly ground force, pinned down by enemy fire, had been unable to reach and secure the landing zone. Although his aircraft had been badly damaged and his controls partially shot away during his initial entry into this area, he returned minutes later and rescued the remaining injured. Shortly thereafter, obtaining a replacement aircraft, Maj. BRADY was requested to land in an enemy minefield where a platoon of American soldiers was trapped. A mine detonated near his helicopter, wounding 2 crew members and damaging his ship. In spite of this, he managed to fly 6 severely injured patients to medical aid. Throughout that day Maj. BRADY utilized 3 helicopters to evacuate a total of 51 seriously wounded men, many of whom would have perished without prompt medical treatment. Maj. BRADY’S bravery was in the highest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit upon himself and the U.S. Army.

      WHERE do we find such people ?


    • Best line: “…military changes individuals–gives them a sense of accomplishment–gives them a sense of “something bigger than myself.” “

  2. Beautifully written, thoughtful piece, Paul.

    As you describe, my adding years is also one of those waypoints on the chart of life that just seems to allow for more mental space to step back and turn more freely in thought when looking at issues like, in this case, war. My biggest mental change about war was when my son was born, and together with the influence of my Army service back in the day, worked up my present day view of the sacrifices of self, country and family that I think necessarily confront every parent and patriot the world over.

    I respect those who venerate the gatherings, commemorations and parades on Veteran’s Day, but my involvement has usually been limited to my personal experiences as described. Your wonderful piece has now given me another opportunity to mentally pause, step back and look around for any thoughts I need to refresh.

    Thank you.

  3. I wish I heard a lot more sentiments like this, and a lot less of the always uncomfortable “thank you for your service.” Thanks Paul.

  4. Extremely well done, Paul. I am uncomfortable with the “Thank you for your service” response, though it’s admittedly better than being treated as a pariah as we were back in the 70’s. Your great writing really helps define my thinking.

  5. I still remember sometime back not long after 9/11 when I was in the local grocery store and someone said something to me that I didn’t quite catch so I asked her to repeat it. She said ‘Thank you for your service’ and nodded at the USMC tee shirt I was wearing. I was a little taken aback because no one had ever said anything like that to me before and I have to admit it felt good to have someone say it and say it so sincerely as she did. It was such a contrast to what I heard when I came back to ‘the world’ after serving with MAG-12 in Vietnam which included epithets like ‘baby killer’, ‘war criminal’, etc. especially when I returned to college to finish up my degree. I agree that perhaps some folks don’t fully appreciate what it means when they say it but I have to say it sure beats the hell out of what I used to hear.

  6. I enlisted in the Air Force immediately after I graduated from high school in June, 1954. The draft was still in full swing and I wasn’t college material. (and I didn’t want to be drafted.) I ended up being based 80 miles from home. Also, I disliked the prospect as a career as an enlisted man. So, I got my head screwed on right and did four years of college after I got out. I also picked up all my ratings and got hired by TWA in late 1963. It started out bad but ended up well.

    I took my Honda Accord in for its annual service yesterday. I joked, “I’m a veteran, is my service free today?” “No,” was the reply, “But you get 10% off.” Then, he thanked me for my service (in Victorville, 80 miles from home).

      • AND … most Lowes have a few preferred parking spaces for Veterans, too.

        In Florida, when you renew your Driver’s license, you can bring in your DD214 and have “Veteran” on your new license. Handy if you don’t have any other easy proof. I have a retired ID but my wife — also a vet — doesn’t … so it helps.

        Just last evening, I got wind that a local restaurant was offering Vets a free chicken dinner … so I went. Up here in rural WI west of Oshkosh, the folks are very appreciative of Vets on Vets Day. In fact, the first time I EVER heard “Thanks for your Service” was up here attending Airventure years ago. It still brings a tear to my eye when I hear it. A far cry from the comments and looks I got traveling through SFO in uniform in 1970.

        • California has that program, too. But, they don’t trust the DMV with the validation. I had to make an appointment with the California Dept. of Veterans Affair. They had the knowledge and background to assess my DD214 and I had to answer questions about my service. They then issued me their certificate to take to the DMV.

          • Kalyfornya … making EVERYTHING hard since Sep 9, 1850 !!

            In 1970, I thought I’d found the pot O’ gold at the end of the rainbow in NoCal. In 1999, happiness was that State in my rear view mirror on eastbound I-10 in Blythe. How sad. Now — 20+ years later — I shudder to think of how things are there.

  7. “10% off”–“a free breakfast”–“photos in a hometown newspaper”–“a mention in an obituary”–these aren’t much, but it’s a whole lot better than veterans received before–and it IS appreciated (if only for one day a year).

    These are the people that EARN–“earn respect”–“earn an education”–“earn a living”–“earn gratitude”–NOT those who “demand” all of the above. They are the CONTRIBUTORS–not the TAKERS. They are those who quietly BUILD the community–NOT those who tear it down.

    If this divided country is ever to be rejoined, we NEED people like that. To quote John Kennedy–“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what YOU can do for your COUNTRY.” We’ve lost that cohesiveness–that sense that the U.S. IS better than most countries in the world–that sense that “we can do ANYTHING.” Universal service to the country is the best way to RESTORE that.

    We lost that “Universal Service” with the advent of the “Great Society”–if there is a defining moment, that’s it. End of the draft. Military held in disdain. “Free” stuff–college, welfare, housing–“if it feels good, DO it!” Amorphous government programs lacking a clear structure or focus. The very underpinnings of what made America great–minimal government (and associated lower taxes), entrepreneurship, involvement in the communities, states, and COUNTRY (often through military service) were abandoned–replaced with an “entitlement” philosophy. Post WW II and into the early 1960s, America truly WAS the leader and envy of the world–industry, innovation, infrastructure, and technology. We were ENTITLED to some “swagger–but we gave it all away with undefined programs and “entitlements”.

    “Entitlements”–“the concept of something being owed to or deserved by someone.” Don’t just GIVE out handouts–LET people EARN government benefits–DO something for the country. It need not be the military–there are lots of ways to qualify by serving. The RECIPIENTS will feel better for it, and the COUNTRY will be the better for it. From Saving Private Ryan–“EARN THIS!”

  8. Excellent piece, Paul. I served an extended tour in VN from Aug 1968 to Jan 1970 as an officer with the 5th Special Forces Group (Abn). Yes, I “jumped out of perfectly good airplanes!” Most of my tour of duty was in the II Corps area which was a very busy place at that time – never a dull moment, but a very rewarding one, because I had the honor of serving with some of the best soldiers in the US Army and the Australian Army, doing very worthwhile, albeit risky, work. However I too get a bit uncomfortable when I am told “Thank you for your service.” As soon as I came home I enrolled in a college post grad program.

    Apparently unlike many of my fellow VN vets who reported ill treatment upon their return home, no one ever treated me with disrespect even in those turbulent years. I often wonder if the reported disrespect is sometimes a bit overstated, but any disrespect of those who serve our country is uncalled-for behavior. While in college again I joined the Army National Guard Special Forces, to finish my commitment and to earn a little extra to help pay for my college enrollment. My fellow students knew I was in the Guard and that I had served in combat in VN, but no one treated me with disrespect at that time either.

    The all-volunteer military has changed the dynamic a bit, but I agree with those who say our country should have universal service of some sort for every young person. It is too easy to forget that we are a democracy “of the People, for the People and by the People”, and with our freedoms come responsibilities. I am proud that I was able to serve my country…

  9. Spot on, Paul.

    My service was a worthy challenge, but no one shot at me in anger. I was part of the 2nd Armored Division during Desert Storm. While one brigade was deployed and attached to the marines. The rest of the world’s finest armored division furled the flag as part of a reorganization planned to save the budget. The “Peace Dividend” was being reaped by Congress even though we were in a war. I won’t go into how ridiculously the reorganization wasted money to avoid closing units with veterans in Congress. Strange priorities.

    I will say this, our win loss record is very good in declared wars. I believe the world would benefit greatly if some President would stand up and point out he intends no wars of liberation. It doesn’t seem to work. Armies are great tools for making war on an enemy, and just not that good at policing.

    If the country needs an overseas police force, it should do the hard work of creating one.

  10. Excellent points Paul. Some time ago I saw an interview with a Japanese journalist who, as a young boy, survived the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima. “Wars are easy to start, but very difficult to end”, he said, referring to his country’s involvement in WWII. “Perhaps if our leaders thought more about that, they could find another way to accomplish their goals”. On the eve of WWI, as the German troops were being deployed to the field, Kaiser Wilhelm asked his generals if there was some way to recall the armies and avoid the war. His generals replied that it was too late. To recall the men would greatly disrupt the train schedules. As a result, 11 million men perished.

    Growing up, I came of draft age right at the end of Viet Nam when the military was changing from the draft to a volunteer force. I remember being shocked at the shabby way Viet Nam vets were treated as they came home from the war. I decided that military service was not worth it, and got on with my civilian life. Fortunately, since then, the American public has realized that soldiers don’t start wars, politicians do, and punishing the soldiers is wrong. To all of you who have served, you have my thanks and eternal respect, not just on Veterans’ Day, but every day.

  11. As Rudyard Kipling put it:
    O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Throw ‘im out, the brute”;
    But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country,” when the guns begin to shoot.

  12. Thank you for your service always causes me to cringe. As one of the oldest Vietnam era vets it will take more that than to reconcile us to our countrymen especially the draft dodgers and anti war types who said we were all felons.

  13. 41 tears ago my commissioning scroll as an officer in the Canadian Armed Forces was signed by the last Minister of Defence that had seen combat service. Many members of that government were WW2 or Korea War vets.

    The phrase “having skin in the war game” was literally true for some of them. I worry that there is a whole generation of decision makers that have no experience of military service, yet can make decisions that can have deadly consequences.

    However those members of government are reflection of a society where very few have been touched by conflict. I cringe when random people “thank me for my service” usually after I have presented my veterans card.

    They have no idea of my service and more importantly the fact that all of it was effectively in the Reserves in peace time. It just does not feel right in light of the real sacrifices that others in uniform have made.

    I wish more people who say “thank you for your service” would instead contribute to Veterans organizations or better still volunteer at a Veterans home. That would be truly thanking veterans for their service…

  14. Yes, essential to have:
    – clear understanding of why taking an action
    – realistic assessment of chances of success
    – the will to win
    – how to do it

    John David Lewis covers the will and how in ‘Nothing Less Than Victory’, whereas in Afghanistan the US and Allies allowed too much religious control including ‘unless Allah decides otherwise’ in Afghanistan’s new constitution, and too much tribal bias.

    (John chronicles how insisting on complete surrender laid the ground for reform of Imperial Shinto Japan and Nationalsozialistiche Germany, Leonard Peikoff covers the latter in The Rise of Hitler’s Germany.)

    Ed Locke questions whether or not it is possible to reform societies like Afghanistan and Iraq.

    • Evil is still active in the world, from domestic terrorists of left and right political fantasies to nations threatening Israel, North Korea, and Taiwan.

      Elimination of conscription should reduce motivation to go to war, as it eliminates the cheap-cannon-fodder reason.

      But beware the notion of forced service lingers in Congress, it will start with ‘community service’ which has already been used against high school students to graduate.

      (Small clarification: Iraq also has too much tribalism, the biggest in two main sects of Islam, many people in one hate the other one because Saddam Hussein was of it.)

  15. Overnight, I watched an eye opening program on CSPAN about the establishment of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington. I did not realize that 2021 was the centennial year of its establishment. The story behind why it was established — largely the ‘push’ of a NY Congressman, Hamilton Fish — and the methodology of choosing exactly who’s remains would be placed in each crypt is more complex than I’d have guessed. Worth noting, the tomb of the Viet Nam Unknown is empty because DNA capabilities have advanced to the point where he was subsequently ID’ed — at his families request — as a fallen USAF 1LT pilot and returned to his family after lying there. That tomb now represents the MIA’s from that War. There are about 4,000 other ‘Unknowns’ buried in Arlington — elsewhere — as well. The program noted that the same catafalque used for Abraham Lincoln’s funeral — or an identical copy — is used in the ceremony.

    I visited the Tomb 10 years ago; everyone who can should visit. It’d underscore Paul’s premise in this article. You won’t leave without at least some emotional feelings about War or a dry eye.


    • I visited it shortly before my military time ended several years ago. I had two days in DC- one for the Air and Space Museum and the other for Arlington. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier had a lasting impact on me. I was especially impressed by the dedication of the guards there.