I’ve established a new routine where I submit my original posts to the New York Times Op Ed page. They have a three day exclusive decision-making process, so if three days go by without hearing from them, I am free to submit elsewhere. Usually that just means it’s going on my blog. That makes this particular post a bit tardy, but I think the sentiment doesn’t need to be relegated to one particular day of the year.
Four years ago I attended my son’s graduation from the US Naval Academy. Like all the parents there, my heart burst with admiration for my son who had worked extremely hard to get to this point. I watched 1200 exemplary young people pledge the next five years of their lives to their country. They were gifted, patriotic, hard-working, disciplined, shining examples of what kind of people our country can produce. They were also the sons and daughters of parents like me, who couldn’t help but worry about where the next five years would take them. Because certainly a percentage of these young people, our children, voluntarily placed in harm’s way, would not survive.
My father had just died a month earlier. My son came home from the Academy to be there for his grandfather’s passing and support me in my time of grief. Then he went back to the Academy, to complete his last push to graduation. He was proudly following in the footsteps of both his grandfathers: his paternal grandfather served in the US Navy during WWII as well as during the Korean conflict, and my father was an officer in the Netherlands Navy after World War II. He had admired the Allied soldiers who liberated Amsterdam after the “hunger winter” of 1944-1945. Neither grandfather would live to see his grandson begin service to his country. I knew both would be extremely proud of the young officer he had become.
I thought about September 11, 2001, when I left work early to pick up my sons at their school, after watching the twin towers fall on TV and realizing that this was an act of war. Like many parents, I showed up at the school in the middle of that cloudless day, made even more brilliant by the lack of any contrails in the sky due to the grounding of all air traffic, to bring my boys home and guide them safely through this time of crisis. Not that I had any idea how to do that. My younger son was just 11 years old, and this event set his future in motion.
He and his best friend planned how they would do their duty. They devised contests sniping each other with paintball guns in their backyards. Their intent never wavered. His best friend planned to enlist, while my son single-mindedly pursued his goal to become a Naval Aviator by attending the Naval Academy. His discipline during his teenage years was impressive. Both boys achieved their goals. I still think of them as “my boys” although they are grown men now. I don’t name them because they are both still serving, both far away, and better left unidentified.
By the time my son graduated from the Naval Academy, his best friend had been awarded the silver star for his heroic actions under fire in Afghanistan. I attended the ceremony. This young man said he was no hero, he just did his duty, and then broke down talking about the brothers he was unable to save on that day. His actions had saved many, but he could not forget those he couldn’t save. It had all happened on my son’s 21st birthday.
I think about a day that I arrived at the Naval Academy to visit my son. As a parent of a Midshipman, I had the privilege to drive onto the campus. That day, my way was blocked by a Wounded Warriors road race winding its way through the campus. Tears stung my eyes as the Midshipmen cheered the progress of men and women with missing limbs, or in wheelchairs, and in one case, a paraplegic being pushed In a wheelchair. The faces of the runners registered joy and accomplishment. The faces of the Midshipmen registered guilt.
Both my son and his best friend cringe at being thanked for their service, because, as they have said to me, their sacrifice is nothing compared to what others have lost. They compare their experience to that of those who made the ultimate sacrifice and end up thinking that they gave hardly anything. Yet what I have observed is that they have given up a great deal. They voluntarily gave up years of their lives to serve their country. They endured excruciating training. They spent lonely months away from their families and missed cherished holiday traditions. They experienced anguish over actions they had to take, whether to discipline someone under their command or to save the life of a comrade. Their mental health suffered as their confidence in their superiors wavered, or the futility of following their orders became clear. For me, the most significant sacrifice is that the sweetness that I knew in them in the past has been replaced by a hard edge.
I struggle to find the words that convey this message: that I respect them for their courage, I appreciate them for what they have done for me and their country, and I love them for who they are. “Thank you for your service” does not convey this feeling very well, and that’s clear from watching their faces when they try to accept the statement with grace.
Maybe it’s that “thank you” demands a response of “you’re welcome”, or, “my pleasure”, or, “no problem”, but none of those are appropriate in this situation. Thanking them brings to their minds the much more significant sacrifices of their fellows. It summons survivor’s guilt. When my son met Bob, an acquaintance of mine who had been a POW in Vietnam, I told him how Bob had once refused to join in with us at work for a Chinese lunch. Bob told me that rice was the only thing he ever got to eat when he was kept in a 4′ x 4′ cage, and he never wanted to eat it again. My 15-year-old son, upon hearing this, went straight to Bob and sincerely shook his hand and thanked him for his service. I could see the indecision in Bob’s face. He told me later that he didn’t serve. He just spent his time in the cage, having been captured almost immediately after he arrived in Vietnam. But he graciously accepted my son’s thanks because he could tell they were sincere.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how to properly pay our respects to these proud and humble people. The best I can think of is a phrase that doesn’t demand a pat response, but allows and acknowledges their mixed emotions. Something like, “I am grateful that you had the courage and commitment to give up your freedom to serve your country.” And then being genuinely open to hearing and responding to any response that might evoke, no matter how unlike “you’re welcome” that may be.