During the Global War on Terrorism, the phrase “thank you for your service” became the default expression of gratitude for American civilians to show their appreciation and admiration for service members and veterans.
“Thank you for your service” has become so ingrained in popular views of the military that veterans often sarcastically shorten the phrase to “TYFYS” in memes and online discussions and the television show Curb Your Enthusiasm famously lampooned the axiom.
In the episode, Larry David is the only guest at a dinner party who does not thank a veteran for his service. Clearly upset, the veteran excuses himself and David is expelled from the dinner.
But according to a new survey, many troops are on Larry’s side.
A recent survey sponsored by USAA, the financial firm whose corporate roots trace to selling insurance to military officers, found that nearly 70% of younger service members and veterans feel uncomfortable and awkward when people tell them, “Thank you for your service.”
“This data shows that military service members and our veterans want Americans to go beyond small talk to connect with them on a deeper level, including learning more about their service, honoring each veteran’s service in ways in which they feel comfortable talking about it,” retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert F. Whittle, Jr., SVP, chief of staff at USAA, said in a news release.
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The question naturally arises: If younger current and former service members do not want to be thanked for their service, how else can the American public express its gratitude for their sacrifices to keep the country safe?
Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas), a retired Navy SEAL who was wounded in Afghanistan, made one suggestion during his November 2018 appearance on Saturday Night Live, which aired shortly before Veterans Day that year.
“Tell a veteran, ‘Never forget,’” Crenshaw said. “When you say, ‘Never forget,’ to a veteran, you are implying that as an American you are in it with them – not separated by some imaginary barrier between civilians and veterans, but connected together as grateful fellow Americans, who will never forget the sacrifices made by veterans past and present, and never forget those we lost on 9/11.”
One reason why veterans may feel uncomfortable when people tell them “Thank you for your service” is that it feels like a canned phrase at this point, said former Marine Maj. Kyleanne Hunter, who researches military and veterans issues for the RAND Corporation.
Thanking troops and veterans for their service can also come across as a way of avoiding having a conversation with them, said Hunter, who deployed to Iraq several times as an AH-1W Super Cobra attack pilot.
“When you see a veteran, it’s like automatically: Oh, I just need to say ‘Thank you for your service,’ and now I’ve recognized that; done; I can move on with my day,” Hunter told Task & Purpose.
She added that some veterans who took part in the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and other difficult operations may not feel proud of their time in the military.
Rather than being thanked for their service, veterans increasingly want people to engage with them about their experiences in the military, Hunter said.
It might be better to ask veterans if they would like to talk about their service, or volunteer to help them transition to civilian life, she said.
“That’s something that I think is really important, that we start to say: How would you like to be recognized, how can I support you through the transition – rather than just, ‘Thank you for your service,’ and sort of walk away,” Hunter said.
Still, it’s hard to find another expression of gratitude that is as concise and straightforward as “thank you for your service.”
Over the years, the phrase has become more endearing to Marine veteran Maximilian Uriarte, creator of the Terminal Lance comic strip and author of the New York Times best-seller list graphic novel The White Donkey.
Uriarte, who fought in the Iraq War, said he initially felt odd when people thanked him for his service.
“It’s like: I really don’t want to be thanked for that,” Uriarte told Task & Purpose. “That was a strange time in American history and a strange war and a strange thing to do.”
But Uriarte has come to appreciate that people who thank him for his service mean well, and that’s all that matters.
He added that it’s hard to think of another way that people can convey the same message of appreciation to service members and veterans.
“If people do feel a sense of gratitude for wartime service or military service, then that’s great,” Uriarte said. “If not, then that’s fine too. We live in America.”