Veteran’s Day rolls around once a year, and I’m appreciative of the recognition that comes with it. Not every veteran got to hear the words, “Thank you for your service” when they came home. Those words make me smile, but also trouble me a little bit. Here’s why I’m humbled, and perhaps a little embarrassed when I hear them, and why I sometimes think they are misdirected.
Here in Minnesota the winters can be long and brutally cold, so a while back I joined a fitness facility. I needed some indoor options for some of those “chillier” days.
For the initial orientation you meet with a personal trainer. He asked about my fitness history:
“Have you ever been in a group fitness program before?”
I had to pause.
If by group “fitness program” he meant lots of people in splashes of colorful spandex sweating together in a brightly lit studio while loud music thumps and someone with a bouncing pony tail and headset encourages us from up on a little stage, my answer would have to be “no.”
I did exercise with other people, though. All the time. But the program I was in was a little different.
It was almost exclusively outside. Most often in the early morning dark, and frequently in the rain, it seemed. We all wore exactly the same outfit; that was a requirement. There were no pony tails; everybody had short hair. A person up front with a loud voice gave very precise instructions; a headset would have been superfluous. Not a lot of chit-chat going on, either.
We did calisthenics like the “side-straddle hop” the “bend and reach” and “mountain climbers.” Then we’d buddy up for partner resisted muscle-building exercise, and a round or two of pullups. Then we’d run. In formation. Singing as we went, to keep us in step.
I was in this fitness program for a couple decades. So, if that counts, then my answer would have to be “yes.”
I didn’t say those words, but that’s the image that flashed through my head: formation running in the rain.
What I said was, “Not really, but I was in the Army for a while.”
“Thank You for Your Service”
He immediately responded with a polite, genuine, “Thank you for your service.”
I always appreciate those words, am grateful to hear them; grateful that I can hear them, and do hear them often. But I’m still not certain how to respond. Thank you? It’s an honor and privilege? Appreciate it? Roger that? Hooah?
Without a doubt, service had its difficulties. For me and my family it involved 13 changes of station, multiple year-long deployments, ridiculous hours, hazardous environments. You can imagine some of the challenges, some of the risks.
I walked away after 26 years of active duty. I’m still largely intact; maybe a little trail-worn, but upright and functional. Not all who served were so fortunate. Some served for much shorter times, and lost far more. I am privileged to call them my brothers and sisters, and am thankful for all they have given.
Why were we serving?
At least for me, the reasons to serve are not as clean and clear as you might think. It’s not purely patriotism or love of country. It’s not strictly altruism. It’s not simply a sense of duty. It’s not just an idea that “citizenship” is a distinction to be earned in the service of others in the community. It is all of those things in degrees. But there was more; not all service is hardship.
There’s the structure, the sense of purpose, the opportunity to see and do things that not everyone has the chance to (they paid me to jump out of airplanes, for Pete’s sake!). There’s the wealth of experience gained, the personal development, the pride in achievement, the sense of camaraderie.
There are the many great leaders I worked for – the principled, firm, yet surprisingly caring leaders who could look you dead in the eye and with equal intensity suggest that you take the hill, or get more sleep. I believed in my leaders because I saw that they tried to live by the values they espoused every day.
There’s the shiny medals, the chance to travel, and the feeling that we were part of something bigger and more important than ourselves. We formed a machine that could fight very well if properly employed, but could also put out forest fires, rescue civilians, enforce peace, promote human rights, bring food to the needy, render aid after natural disaster, stabilize broken lands, and more. We did all those things on my watch. And more.
There was, and still is, public respect. Actually, that’s pretty huge.
There are as many reasons to serve as there are people who have served. However their time in uniform turned out, I’m sure most would tell you that the risk was worth it.
So I, like my brothers and sisters in uniform, for a million different reasons, served. But what were we serving, exactly?
Serve What, Exactly?
We can start with the idea of country – that’s what’s on the brochure. I am deeply patriotic, though not a flag-waver. I believe our country is great, but we have our warts. Some of our warts even have warts. It is an imperfect system at best. Winston Churchill put his finger on it when he said that, “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.”
But that’s part of the package. To borrow a phrase from a friend, that imperfection is not a “bug” – it’s a “feature.” It’s a key selling point. Messy though it may be, it has the built-in potential to improve itself over time. It also has the mechanisms necessary to keep it from going too far astray.
Our forebears set the vision of a land with equal opportunity for all. Nobody had done that before; it’s breath-taking, and I’m still signed up for that idea. We haven’t attained it, not by a long shot, but at least we know the direction we should be working towards.
If we served outside our boarders, it was so that others could continue the pursuit of that vision back home. Our uniforms did not give us a monopoly on service; others were serving too, and continue to serve.
Serving and Leading
Leaders who coach, teach, or mentor to help others become better versions of themselves whether in youth groups, religious settings, or Scouting programs. They serve.
Parents who teach their kids to be decent human beings, treat others with compassion and respect, and obey the law, or work peaceably to change laws that need to be changed. They serve.
Volunteers in support of community projects; teachers in schools, workers in health care, or those who help the aging or disabled. They serve.
Servants who police the streets, respond to traffic accidents, put out fires, or come to our rescue in the infinite number of ways we can get into the hurt box and need help. They serve.
Others who staff libraries, run shelters, pave the roads, or pick up the trash. They serve.
People who let cars merge in busy traffic, hold the door for others, or extend kindness to strangers. They serve.
Those who vote, volunteer at polling places, or politely and respectfully listen to what the other side has to say, and voice their own opinions with that same attitude. They serve.
It would be easy to go on, but you get the idea. Anyone working to unite others in pursuit of a better place for all of us to live is serving. Uniform or not, we’re on the same team. And in working to bring the vision a little closer, we are all leading.
On Service – The Takeaway
Service to country and community happens everywhere, and all of us have the potential to serve.
As veterans, our uniformed service ranged from an often-uncomfortable group “fitness program” in the pre-dawn rain, to some greater privation and risk far away. We faced those challenges together, as brothers and sisters in the service. We were there for each other.
And, at least for me, the reason we were there was that we believed that others were there for us, too, serving in the communities back home. Showing in their every act and in a thousand different ways their intent to make good on that vision to make life for all of us better.
So: if that was you, if that is you, well then you are my brother or sister, too.
Matching uniform not required.
Thank You for Your Service.