John Fer: Telling a service member, "Thanks for your service" doesn't do much
Civilians should say, "Thank you for your sacrifice" instead, he writes
Editor’s Note: John Fer is a retired Air Force colonel and Vietnam POW. This is part of the “First time I knew I wanted to serve” series. Fer was shot down on his 54th combat mission by North Vietnamese surface-to-air missiles on February 4, 1967, while engaged in an electronic countermeasures mission. He spent more than six years as a POW in camps in and around Hanoi, frequently in solitary confinement or isolation. He was released March 4, 1973, during “Operation Homecoming.” The views expressed are his own.
In his second inaugural address, as the American Civil War was coming to a close, President Abraham Lincoln committed Americans “to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan,” and in so doing reminded us of the need to recognize and honor the men and women who are America’s veterans.
That became the genesis of what we now know as Veterans Day, November 11, a day that had its birth with President Woodrow Wilson’s proclamation of November 11, 1919, as the first commemoration of Armistice Day. It fell to later generations to officially establish November 11 as Veterans Day, honoring veterans from all of America’s wars. But somewhere along the way, appreciation of our sacrifices has become diluted.
The importance of honoring our veterans, although legislatively diminished in spirit by enactment of the Uniform Holiday Bill in 1968, ought not to distract us from the eternal requirement to keep November 11 as our day of recollection and gratitude for those who selflessly served our great nation – some of whom are not free of the physical, mental or psychological wounds that constrain them.
For many, these wounds are not readily visible: PTSD, alcoholism, suicide (estimated at an average of 20 deaths per day, a rate that is 21% higher for adult veterans than of adult non-veterans), divorce (during incarceration, some of my POW comrades were divorced by wives at home who would not wait for repatriation), unemployment, loss of a spiritual connection, drug abuse, and homelessness.
Fortunately, I had no difficulty adjusting when I was released after spending nearly six years in confinement. First, I was a bachelor and did not have the anxious feelings of the POW married/family men. After convalescence, I resumed my military career in school and then went back to doing what I loved: flying.
As POWs, we had been given an extraordinary amount of attention by the American public, media and our government because of the inhumane treatment we received at the hands of the North Vietnamese, such as years of solitary confinement, frequent physical abuse in violation of the Geneva Conventions, suppression of communication between prisoners within the camps and our families back home, and confiscation of packages from home – the communists delivered only four letters to me in over six years of confinement, and no packages.
As a result of the public attention, its demand for better treatment, and the stipulation by the Nixon administration that we were to be released coincident with the signing of any peace agreement to end hostilities, we became the positive focus during what was not a very popular war. When the release came, the POWs came home to great fanfare in three large release groups.
But this wasn’t and still isn’t the reality of most returning veterans. The magnitude of these particular war-related debilitations came into our consciousness with magnum force during the Vietnam War but existed long before that. Although the recognition across the board has improved with the reorganization of the VA nationwide, with a rating scale to assess how well the VA is doing its job, help for veterans adjusting back to civilian life isn’t where it should be.
There is a disconnect in our government. Congress has few members who have served and, therefore, as a body, little intuitive understanding of the impact on those making sacrifices – their own constituents: men, women, and families. This underwrites the American practice of “letting someone else do the jobs we won’t do.”
The Military Officers Association of America revealed that 52% of parents would not recommend military service for their children. There were times when a portion of our enlistees and officers (from ROTC and other officer training sources) made up at least some part of the force that came from our elite civilian colleges. Today, that source is even smaller and many consider military service beneath its dignity.
And our all-volunteer armed forces, while attracting those who want to serve, have given a “pass” to the millions who ought to serve, and placed great mission strain on those who do serve. This means a shallower pool of qualified applicants is increasingly widening the separation between the nation’s most trusted institution and American society as a whole.
Our military is a mercenary force made up of 0.5% of the population and paid for by self-contented Americans – some of whom passively watch our flag disrespected by individuals earning millions more than those who go in harm’s way.
That self-contentment applies to civilians who say “thanks for your service” as uniformed servicemen pass by them in an airport. It does little. It may give a civilian 15 seconds of satisfaction to think that they made a meaningful impact on a soldier’s day, but real impact would be saying “thank you for your sacrifice” or “because of you, America is safe.”
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But the good news of late has been a renewed vigor from the office of the commander in chief toward the military establishment’s mission. Specifically, in recent months America has seen an increased appreciation for restoring military effectiveness of not only our combat arms but also the stated mission of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Both actions translate into higher morale.
Praise, then, on this Veterans Day those who served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East and dozens of other places in the world, for their sacrifice to make us safe.