Michael B. Brennan PsyD

The War Within

Should You Say "Thank You for Your Service"?

Why you should thank a veteran.

Posted Nov 09, 2017

When we meet a veteran, does he or she want to be told, “Thank you for your service?” Over the course of the last 15 years, I have heard many opinions on this question from veterans and non-veterans alike. I’ve gotten input from mental health professionals, clergy, and other medical personnel about whether to thank a veteran or active service member for their service to our country. Ultimately, I have heard mixed reviews—some people say that you should say “thank you” to a veteran or current service member; others think you shouldn't. Each side of the issue has a valid perspective. 

This difference of opinion resulted in a very thought-provoking reflection that had me evaluate both sides of the issue. Some questions that came up for me were: What might lead a person to recommend not thanking someone for their service? What experiences would a veteran or service member have that would evoke a reaction in either direction—positive or negative—if someone thanked them for their service? Finally, when did this debate originate?

As I reflected on my own experience, I could see both sides. When I was on active duty, when people noticed I was in uniform, a common experience was people walking up and saying “thank you for your service.” To me, it felt great to receive the acknowledgment and it would make me feel proud of what I do. I feel honored to wear the uniform; being acknowledged for doing so is an added bonus. Coming from the perspective of someone who has been deployed but never seen direct combat (e.g. firefight, IED blast, etc.) outside of mortar attacks, I take great pride in serving this country in uniform and therefore enjoy being thanked for my service. 

From a different angle, I would often feel uncomfortable about running errands after work because if I entered a store, a restaurant, or other establishment that was away from a military installation, I would usually stick out. I often felt awkward and hyperconscious, like people were staring at me or that I always had to be on my best behavior so that I represented the Army in a positive way. I lived 45 miles away from the main post, which resulted in fewer military personnel in the community where I lived. As a result, going anywhere would often result in bringing attention to myself. I would constantly be on alert and mindful of my actions. In reflecting upon my own experience in feeling uncomfortable and awkward when outside of the main post in public, I can only imagine what someone who has experienced more direct combat might feel in a similar situation. 

Why Some Don't Support Saying Thanks

I have worked in the mental health field with veterans and service members for many years. Over this time, I have heard a variety of providers, people, clergy, civilians, and others state that you should not say “thank you for your service” to a veteran or service member. Four main reasons that I have heard come to mind. 

First, those who believe this say that it could “trigger” someone to have an emotional reaction. The trigger would be connected to a potential adverse or traumatic experience that has impacted their view of military service in a negative way. This could potentially mean that someone would get angry or irritated (e.g. "You don’t know what I've done.”), respond in a way that is reactive (e.g. “You don’t know what I have been through.”) or question your intent (e.g. “Why would you say that?”). 

Second, not everyone that is a veteran served in the same era or timeframe, so their homecoming experience or public opinion while they were at war may have been drastically different. For example, a veteran who served in the Vietnam era may have had a negative homecoming experience that consisted of harassment from civilians, protests by the public, and implied disapproval of U.S. military presence overseas.

Third, the era of service also makes a difference as some veterans volunteered to serve in the military and some were drafted. The difference can be significant depending on what they experienced—for example, while deployed to Vietnam. For a veteran who volunteered to serve versus a veteran who did not have a choice, their response, view, and perspective may be significantly different due to having the freedom to make the decision or not. The power of choice could significantly impact the type of response one might receive. 

Fourth, I have heard various medical and mental health providers recommend saying a variety of different sayings such as “thank you for your willingness to serve,” “welcome home,” or “thank you for your sacrifice.” The reason for this ties into the first reason which is to cater your response to the individual based on the era of service or what you know they did while in the military. 

Why I Recommend Saying Thank You

I would like to send a clear message. In my view, regardless of a veteran’s era of service, branch of service, active or non-active status or deployment area of operation, etc., you should thank a veteran or service member for their service by specifically stating: “thank you for your service.”

In general, I recommend going “over” rather than “under”: acknowledging someone’s service rather than not doing so for fear of what the response might be. It is a blanket statement that can be applied to a large number of those who have served or who are currently serving in any capacity.

Many civilians and veterans alike have good intentions when they say the phrase “thank you for your service.” In most cases, it is highly likely that their intentions are to acknowledge the sacrifice and selfless service that many veterans and service members have made. Simply stating a phrase is one of the ways that they are choosing to honor the ones that they most likely see as allowing us to live the lifestyles that we do in a free land. Although America is not perfect, it strives to be. 

Anecdotally, however, I have encountered some veterans that state things like, “Civilians don’t understand and they never will—so why are they thanking me for something they don’t understand?” If a veteran or service member is unable or unwilling to see past the semantics of someone’s (most likely good) intentions, it's possible that there could be a “stuck point” or significant point of contention due to a potentially traumatic experience or negative event that occurred while deployed or in the military. If a veteran is triggered, has a negative reaction, or has an “issue” with someone that says “thank you for your service,” it could be helpful for that person to seek therapy so that they could work toward a place to where they would be able to receive such a statement and see it as an acknowledgment of their service. 

Each year, as Veterans Day draws near, many people contact me and ask me what they could do for veterans. I have three recommendations:

  1. Acknowledge Veterans for their service by saying a simple: “Thank you for your service.” Whether that’s on Facebook, a text message, a phone call, a letter, or an in-person greeting, a basic acknowledgment can go a long way.
  2. Get involved in your community where veterans frequent: i.e., VFW, local Vet Center, American Legion, or local non-for-profit. Veteran organizations are always looking for volunteers. Ask them what they need the most and see if you are able to meet that demand. 
  3. Educate yourself on military cultural competence by reading current articles on military-related topics and/or having a conversation with a veteran or service member on what they think you should know. Simply taking an interest with the intention of learning will go a long way as well. 

These are three basic things that you can do moving forward to help acknowledge a veteran or service member in your community. As this national holiday approaches, take action in whatever manner has meaning for you.