Tuesday, July 24, 2012

"Thank you for your service."

Recently a segment on MSNBC described Rush Limbaugh's efforts to dodge the draft during Viet Nam and that he never volunteered after he got a high lottery number.  Nothing particularly troubling in that.  However, now he is an avid hawk, belligerently supporting  every war, and calling for more.  When I heard the piece, my response was "Go ahead Rush, thank me for my service."  If you can't hear it clearly, I was angered and deadly sarcastic.

I have a lot of respect for the impetus behind the present convention/practice of thanking veterans for their service.  In no small part this is because as a Viet Nam vet, I wasn't exactly thanked.  So I was appreciative of the maturing of the American culture where we learned to separate whatever feelings we had about a particular war from our feelings about those who fight it. Yet I know from my own feelings and my years of experience helping Veterans at Walter Reed that thanking and being thanked is a much more complicated matter than it appears.

Almost universally, veterans thanked for their service by a stranger report their response is to smile, nod, raise a hand, or verbally respond positively.  But when deeper feelings can be acknowledged in the safety of a therapeutic group, another side sometimes comes out.

Some describe feeling that it is meaningless because they were just doing their job.  Others complain about the impersonal nature of the thanks, feeling it's done more for the thanker than it is for them.  And there are a lot stronger response still:

"F#$@ you!  Don't thank me, go do you share."

"If you had any idea what it was really like, you'd know how meaningless and empty that sounds."

"That's it, 'Thank you' that repays what?"

"Where were you when the decision to send us over was made?"

"You want to thank me?  Then give me back my old self... take away this grief (or guilt)...

This and more I've heard from veterans, and not just "loosers" but men and women I respected for their honest efforts to come to terms with their experience of war.

I know what I'm reporting here is extremely controversial and many will be outraged by my saying it, going as it does against the grain of the primary military value of self-sacrifice.  But in order for soldiers to self-sacrifice, i.e., willingly risk their lives following orders, three things are necessary:  They must believe in the justness of their cause, that their leaders are concerned about their welfare, and that their fellow soldiers can be trusted.  If any of those are violated then self-sacrifice becomes suicide.  For those not so inclined, cynicism (and rage) may be the only protection.

So if you've come to believe that the justification for your war was false/specious/self-serving, what would it be like to be thanked for your service, as though you gave it willingly?  When you've come to continue doing it because you'd be killed or imprisoned if you didn't and to keep faith with your fellow soldiers?  And if you come to believe that your leaders were more concerned for their safety or careers than your welfare, could the sweetness of thanks quench the bitterness of betrayal?

Roy Clymer

For the background and context for these remarks, please read my article on PTSD published in the Psychotherapy Networker which can be found here http://www.psychotherapynetworker.org/recentissues/1151-the-puzzle-of-ptsd or see a copy of it found on this blog titled "The Puzzle of PTSD."

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