I hear this a lot. I appreciate it, but it always seems perfunctory. I never doubt that the person who says it means it, but, like Wes Moore, I now that they really don't understand what it was that I did for a living for so long.
Like Wes, I did not join the Navy to go to war. I did not join the Navy to fight or to kill people. I learned how to do all those things, though. I learned it well. I even learned how to lead Sailors and Marines into war and how to give them orders that might get them hurt or killed.
The Navy was hard work. The Navy was fun work. The Navy was rewarding work. The Navy taught me lots of things about people, both good and bad.
"Thank you for your service" is a phrase I began hearing shortly after 9/11. I appreciated the thought. Like Wes's experience, I wanted to talk about my experience. I wanted to share what I learned about the world and what I learned about people. But, they did not want to hear that. They didn't have time. It was like "How are you?" and not really wanting to know. It was perfunctory.
If you want to really thank someone for their service, perhaps you need to know that many of our military men and women carry wounds that will stay with them for life. Missing body parts. Missing memories. Missing friends. Missing relationships.
Those military people don't want your sympathy. They want you to understand them, what they did, and why they did it. It does not matter whether what they were asked to do is something you agree with. They responded their country's call. They responded to your call. They responded to our call. We owe them something for doing that and while a simple "thank your for your service" is perhaps better than nothing, it is insufficient.
This country will be paying for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (and Somalia, and Syria, and...) for decades to come. We will be paying for the injuries for a long time. With the draw down from the wars interest in supporting the Veterans Administration will decline. Interest in supporting the plethora of charities that support our Wounded Warriors will decline. The interest of our elected officials in such things will decline as the interest of the public declines.
So, do you really want to thank them for their service?
Then, don't forget them. When you see a veteran of the wars - and not just the recent ones, but all of them - sit down and talk to them. If they will let you, ask them what they did. Ask them what they learned. Ask them why they valued their service. Ask them what they think about their comrades in arms.
We who spent time in the military have a conceit. We don't think anyone without such experience can ever really understand us. We don't think that those without military service really know what defending the nation is all about. You can break through that, though, with patient conversation with those one or two veterans of war that you probably know.
Don't offer sympathy. Offer an ear. And, if you are really serious, listen and don't forget.