What does 'Thank you for your service' mean to veterans?

An elderly man holds the hand of and looks at a young boy.
Nine-year-old Christian O'Brien greets 98-year-old World War II Navy veteran Joseph Stephes before the start of a Minnesota Twins game in Minneapolis on Oct. 7, 2019. Stephes served for 6 years on the USS Wichita where he shot down fighter planes and saw the aftermath of the bombing of Nagasaki.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2019

On Tuesday, state officials, veterans and citizens gathered to announce that 13 counties in central Minnesota have cleared their housing waitlists of military veterans, bringing the state that much closer to ending homelessness among veterans.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, veterans are at higher risk for homelessness and currently are overrepresented in the homeless population. 

Ending homelessness among veterans is an ongoing effort. It takes both governmental and non-governmental agencies working together to succeed. And it takes a deep understanding of military service — what it means, how it plays out and the long-term effects it has on the lives of not just veterans, but also the people who live with them, work with them and love them.  

On Veterans Day, host Angela Davis digs into the meaning of the phrase “Thank you for your service” with a veteran of the Iraq War who works as a veterans advocate, a therapist who works with veterans and a representative of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs. 

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  • Tom McKenna is a veteran of the Iraq War and a veterans advocate with Every Third Saturday, a nonprofit supporting veterans in Minnesota. 

  • Eli Reding is a licensed clinical psychologist who works with veterans in his practice. 

  • Brad Lindsay is the Deputy Commissioner of Programs & Services at the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs.

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The following is a summary of some of the different experiences heard during the hour. Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

We heard from many veterans during the hour, starting with David in Excelsior who is a Vietnam combat veteran. David told us, “there are many veterans that I’m aware of that have a complicated history with their military service and with the idea of someone saying, ‘Thank you for your service.’ I hear it when I go to a big box store. They’ve been told, when someone pulls out their ID to get the veterans discount, to say, ‘Thank you for your service.’ To me, it feels perfunctory. What it is not acknowledging is that complicated history that some of us have.

“And yes, it changes over time for a veteran, but for those veterans with moral injury — moral injury is something that often lies underneath PTSD for veterans — and consequently moral injury has typically affected the veteran that they have seen or participated in while they were in the military that rocked to the core their belief of who they are as a human being.

“To hear thank you for your service can be retraumatizing for veterans with moral injury because they may feel, as I do, that I’m a murderer and saying thank you for your service is not what you want to hear. If someone wants to say something to a veteran, tell them, Thank you for your sacrifice. At least acknowledge that. Then it can encompass all manner of their military service.”

Dr. Eli Reding helped define moral injury as a concept that many veterans experience or have to do things that are contrary to their moral set of standards and that causes long-term emotional and mental health concerns. It can be a core piece of PTSD in some cases. So, they think, I have seen something or done something that completely goes counter to my values as a person. In therapy we have to reorient the veteran to the meaning of those values. It can be a long road to walk for the veteran. 

Brad from West St. Paul told us that he finds the phrase off-putting. He joined the service at 18 because he wanted “to get out of the crappy little town” he grew up in. He didn’t endure combat. He volunteered for submarine duty because he would avoid being shot at. He doesn’t think he needs thanks, he did it for personal reasons and got what he wanted from it. He thinks that people do not understand what it means to have been in the military, and thanking him for his service is too much. 

Another guest, Tom McKenna, used to be uncomfortable with the phrase, “Thank you for your service,” because he thought, “if you knew what I've done, you wouldn’t be thanking me.” But with time, maturity and therapy, he now thinks that people who say it mean well and they just want to connect with veterans. 

We also heard from Micah, a female veteran. She self-identifies as a queer Asian woman. She was in the air force for seven years. Micah was upset, as she told us about her family’s service across generations and how taxing it can be for families. She was particularly upset about veterans being deported even after they serve as well as what is called, “the invisible war” which refers to the high rate of sexual assault that occurs within the military. 

Sandra called to say that she finds the phrase uncomfortable to respond to. Should she say, “You’re welcome?” Do people truly understand what it means to serve? When she hears that phrase, she thinks about the military colleagues she lost. 

Leigh, a woman medic who was in the Air Force, told us that she appreciates when people thank her for her service because she sees it as a sign of respect.  She added that some days she feels like sharing about her service, but some days she doesn’t. So civilians need to learn to read the person they are talking to and make sure the veteran is ready to engage with you. Leigh also lamented that so many of the organizations meant to support and serve veterans are oriented towards men, so being a female vet can be particularly lonely. 

Eric called in from Bloomington. He’s a Marine corps veteran of 10 years. He responds to, “Thank you for your service” with “Thank you for your support.” 

And finally, we heard from Paul in Minneapolis. He called himself a, “dark green Marine.” He served in the Marines, the Army and the Navy over 30 years. He served in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq. The longer he served, and the more of his military brothers who died in combat, or came home with PTSD and committed suicide, he’s learned that, for him, his colleagues, particularly the women he served with, are the most valuable part of his experience. He joined because he comes from a family with a history of service. After all of that, he thinks that “Thank you for your service” should be said to veterans who clearly want to hear it.