Being a Veteran in Today's America

The Incredibly Few, The Mostly Proud: The Anonymous Veterans of Today’s America

This was originally posted as a thread on Twitter. But, at the suggestion of a few friends, I’m turning it into an article here. Please understand that this is my opinion.

A few things have bothered me the past couple of weeks about how Americans “respect” veterans. While I served, I appreciated the recognition at sporting events and ceremonies for active duty personnel. But, now that I’m a civilian, I have strong feelings about how veterans should conduct themselves in today’s America. I see the role of veterans in society today as responsible, pragmatic, and thoughtful citizens. Veterans’ responsibilities are to ensure those currently serving this nation are keeping the oaths we swore to.

One thing that I don’t recall being a thing until recently is veterans in civilian clothes saluting during the national anthem. As a matter of fact, this wasn’t allowed until 2008 when a provision was included in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008 (further modified in 2009). I get it, it’s law, you can do it if you so desire (I won’t judge you for it). It’s not necessary though.

Why render a salute as opposed to putting your hand over your heart? What’s your reason for doing that? To self-identify as a veteran? Are you seeking recognition or special treatment? I didn’t serve to be recognized for it. I joined because of the dot-com bubble burst. I continued serving because I wanted to make sure the perpetrators, planners, and networks behind the 911 attacks were brought to justice. If you feel like you deserve recognition or special treatment because you served it’s quite possible you served for the wrong reasons.

Another thing that irked me, I haven’t quite been able to put my finger on why either, was at Aubree’s graduation, all veterans were asked to stand up and be recognized. While I appreciated the thought, I did not stand up. That was neither the time nor the place to be recognized. It was a time to honor my daughter’s tremendous accomplishments, not my own.

I feel that as a veteran the last thing I should do is act as if I’m deserving of something. I don’t “deserve” to be treated for my injuries. It should just happen, period. I shouldn’t have to fight for access to treatments, yet I have to. I shouldn’t have to live in constant pain, yet I do. I shouldn’t have to decide between spending time with family and treating my injuries, yet I do.

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There is one thing that irritates me about veteran conduct today. The use of your rank after service. Retirees are allowed to use their rank after service. According to the Department of Defense, “When military titles are used by members to sign their names to documents that pertain to them personally, they must show that they are in a retired status after the grade.”

My bank and insurance company, USAA, has a policy of referring to separated and retired veterans as their rank. The first time USAA did this after I was medically separated, I asked them to stop immediately. I’m not a Technical Sergeant anymore, I’m a disabled veteran. Calling me Technical Sergeant reminds me of my injuries, it reminds me of all the sacrifice; it feels like a crushing weight. One of the best feelings I’ve had since leaving the Air Force is when the VA decided after years of appeals to acknowledge the injuries I was medically separated for. When the disability rating came in I damn near cried. I thought, “Finally! They have acknowledged me and my sacrifice. I won’t have to fight for treatment as hard anymore.”

Unless you’re in a position where your former rank matters for your day-to-day role, veterans should never ask to be recognized by their rank. It is a false shield as if you are trying to protect yourself or your actions behind the rank you used to hold. For example, retired Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North makes wide use of his military rank even though he’s decades away from his time in service. It’s as if we should forget about North’s actions in the 80s. Oliver North is preying on society’s immense desire to always respect veterans. You degrade your service by insisting others help you shield yourself behind your rank. It isn’t about what you did, it’s about what you’re doing now.

But, here is the thing that really gets my ire up. “Thank you for your service.” I don’t think it bothered me this much until I spoke at ChefConf. I was discussing my experience with warfare during my DevOps is Not War talk, someone boisterously blurted out, “Thank you for your service!” It damn near derailed the whole talk. I almost went on a tirade about how an anonymous, singular thank you is never enough.

Yelling out, “Thank you for your service!” might feel good in the moment, it is the only thing I hear anymore. Everyone says, “Thank you for your service,” it’s cliche at this point. Ask me where I served, what I did, when was I in, anything. Don’t check a box of political correctness and move on.

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Have a meaningful moment with the veterans you encounter; not just a platitude. If you have opinions, share them. To us, it feels like we sacrificed normalcy while the civilians went shopping and drank Starbucks. Put some significance for us into the moment.

Whatever you do, don’t shout it out during a damn talk! You’re taking the spotlight off a speaker that was invited to present based on their experiences and knowledge. The speaker is someone people are willing to listen to. By shouting out, “Thank you for your service,” during a talk you’re focusing attention on yourself. For what? So you can say words that everyone else in the room is probably already thinking? Want to thank me? Write a letter to Congress demanding a better VA.

We’re veterans, not pawns. We’re humans, not robots. We’re people, please treat us like people. Engage with veterans how you would engage with everyone else. The fact we’re veterans should be the start of a conversation not the end of one. We might have issues, we might need extra help with things, but what we don’t need is to be made anonymous through those five words.

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