This Veteran’s Day, back up your words of thanks

This Veteran’s Day is the first since I met my husband that we will be together since we met. For this, I am infinitely grateful. He is a brave and selfless person, and I’m proud to be his wife and share my life with him.

Last year, I spent the day alone while he was overseas. The year before we still lived in separate cities. The year before that, he was locked away in training for his deployment. The year before that, we had just met and were dating long distance. It’s a hard day to spend apart, and in 2013, I made the mistake of going to work and acting like it was no big deal.

I ended up in tears before 9:30 am.

Despite being surrounded by coworkers, no one saw the stress that dating someone in the military put on me. He was prepping for Afghanistan, and I was freaked out that 1)something would happen to him and 2)if something happened, I would have no legal right to know. I didn’t want thanks (thanks for what – for not throwing a fit that the government sent him away?), but I did want someone to take me out for chamomile tea. I didn’t know how to ask for that.

Now, three years later, I have endured thanks upon thanks. “Endured” may sound off, but it makes more sense when people often trail off when they say, “Do thank your husband for his service, and of course, um, thanks to you for…your…*mumble mumble*…”

I usually say, “thank you for your support” now before the poor sap gets to the end. I alleviate them of the awkwardness of not knowing what to do or say. And I think people don’t know what to do or say because they honestly have no idea what life is like for me. So let me help you out. Please don’t thank me for my service or sacrifice. Thank my husband if you’d like, but realize he’s not particularly comfortable with public recognition or praise.

Perhaps people think we don’t get thanked very often. Trust me, we hear it a lot. I often wonder what motivates the thanks. From those who lived through Vietnam, I wonder if they’re trying to make up for the treatment of veterans in that era, and I understand the mental urge to distinguish one’s words from the attacks and spit of the 1970s. (From my perspective, the scales are more than tipped, but I’m also one who doesn’t believe that joining the military automatically makes one a hero.)

I’m sure others feel truly patriotic and grateful for our freedoms. That’s a comforting thought, but I believe that citizens fight for our freedoms just as much as our military, just in very different ways. Some of them literally put themselves in the line of fire. It’s not the organization that makes the hero, either.

Sometimes, on my skeptical days, I feel that words of thanks are simply a soundbite which absolves a person’s conscience of the responsibility of stepping up to help in any meaningful way.

It’s not that I think thanks are bad. But, just like dating, it’s not what someone says, it’s what they do. 

Allow me to illustrate how the last example goes down for me. On a recent trip to Kroger during the six-month period my husband was away this year, I ran into a woman I knew casually through church. Literally, our carts nearly collided around the pasta sauce and we found ourselves awkwardly apologizing to each other, slowly moving to recognition.

“I heard,” she said, “That your husband is away.”

“You heard correctly,” I said, smiling through somewhat gritted teeth.

“Well that must be so difficult, I just can’t imagine.”

To be fair, this exchange started off better than most. I almost mistook it for empathy at first, and relaxed.

“Please thank him for his service, and of course, you too, for your…sacrifice.”

The hairs on my neck stood on end immediately. I could feel my throat constrict. I wanted to scream, but settled for calling out her authenticity.

“Please let me know if there is anything I can do for you,” she said, starting to reengage her cart in an effort to move past me. The words cut deeply, because in the era of social media, not only did I not know the woman’s last name, number, Facebook account, Twitter handle, or schedule, I didn’t even know where she lived to accost her properly at her door for my future needs.

“As a matter of fact,” I chimed in, stepping to the side of my cart to block her cart from moving forward, “I’m so glad you offered – I really hate to cook and I haven’t been eating well. I’m buying these groceries, but could really use company to have a proper meal.”

This is true. My husband is the cook of our household and I don’t eat well when he’s gone. But to prove my point, her immediate reaction was disbelief, moving into a stammered balk.

“Oh – oh sure, I’d, um, be glad too.” She didn’t take her cell phone out of her purse, the sure sign that someone considers you calendar or contact-worthy. “This week is so crammed, with the kids’ Little League practices and PTA meeting. I also need to bake three dozen cupcakes for the Sunday School fundraiser.”

I pushed on, not because I enjoy being a jerk, but because I really am interested in understanding the weight of offers emanating from the verbal fetish of thanks for military service. Hell, even my pastor asked our congregation to remember military wives. He even said he would like to invite me to his house for dinner once, but promptly forget to schedule anything to back it up.

“Well, he is gone for four more months,” I said. “Would next week work for you?” I always like to give options to test commitment. She did not take out her cell phone.

“Oh, that could work,” she replied. “But my husband might be out of town for a few days.”

That stung. As if I, the woman to whom you just bestowed your false feelings of empathy and warmth for her sacrifice at having a spouse out of town for half the year should suddenly feel sorry for someone who can’t offer company because she’ll (probably falsely) *sigh, gasp, sigh* be left alone for three days. Shit, don’t let me cramp your style.

I let her off the hook. I had made my point. When I don’t spend time with people, it’s because I don’t want to. But I certainly haven’t offered to to help them in any way possible before deciding not to hang out. I don’t have a problem with people not preferring my company as a human. What I dislike is the hypocrisy of appearing concerned about my military situation without bothering to learn anything about it and secretly giving less than two hoots about the loneliness of my days. Apparently some people are too busy to stuff in an hour or two of empathy. It’s annoying, relieving others of the burden of their words which bit off more than they meant to chew.

“Oh, of course, I totally understand, life can be so busy,” I said.

Of course, I didn’t understand. I know that life can be busy, but I also know how hours can stretch into endless days and sleepless nights and countless moments of wondering when the cosmos will resume its normal pace. At that time, life did not feel so busy. Despite the activities that made it necessary to get out of bed and go through the day, life was not so busy. Life was painfully slow.

So what should she have said? My ideal interaction might look like this:

“Oh hello, how are you?”

“I’m doing okay, thank you.”

“Have a nice day!”

Say this if what you mean is that you don’t care any more than that. Otherwise, the fact that my husband is away is just gossip. Mention of his service is brought on by societal peer pressure. What else can you say if you do truly care?

“Hi. I heard your husband is away. How are you holding up?”

*Only say this if your heart is truly invested in listening or following up in some way.* This allows me to reveal what I will about my situation. At that point, if you care to get more involved, you can, and you’ll have a starting point to know what I’m struggling with.  Because by the time you say,

“What can I do?”

I’ll expect you to do it, just like any person would no matter what his or her situation. My military status shouldn’t change the size of your heart or generosity. My loneliness as a person dumped in a new town with few contacts could.

After several rounds of this with slightly different circumstances, it seems that many who thank me for my sacrifice are content for me to carry that burden. After all, why would they thank me if they didn’t want me to sacrifice my hours of happiness? If they wanted to step in and provide relief, they wouldn’t be thanking me for any sacrifice, they would be there. They would show up unannounced or ask me for my number to text me with a plan to have dinner, or see a movie, or attend an event that I just can’t drag myself to do alone. They wouldn’t expect me to organize my own social events, because even at my best times, that’s never been my strength. I know how to be alone and it seems that in being good at it, the thanks I receive for it has backed me into a hole.

While he was gone, I took time to travel various place to see my girlfriends or my family. This, without a doubt, was the best thing a military wife could do. It was the best way to forget myself and the tick tick tick of seconds. We went to Barre3 or to music events. They offered me wine and long talks on the porch to ponder the state of the universe. They allowed me to cry and vent that I have spent half of my marriage as a single woman, but we spent equal time covering their struggles and hopes as my heartache. That is as it should be. It is friendship and love, it is thanks and gratefulness for my company, defined. And that, more than anything, is what I need when my husband leaves. To know that I am not defined by him and his absence, but by my brain and capability for contributing to moments of joy on my own.

Months later, the woman from Kroger hasn’t reached out to me. I wonder if flippant words of thanks will ever be enough and I doubt it. I’ve never been good with sound bites or lack of action.

What’s the best way to thank my husband? You’d have to ask him, but I’m guessing he would appreciate people asking about the specifics of his deployment and listening to the true challenges of our national defense issues. He supports Wounded Warrior, Fisher House, and other programs to help veterans. Celebrate the spirit of hopefulness for future peace of Armistice Day, the original Veteran’s Day.

As for me, don’t thank me. Just get to know me as more than the military cover. I have dreams and hopes that you’ll be more than just words.

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