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Your 'thank you' to veterans is welcomed, but not always comfortably received

Speaking on Veterans Day at Arlington National Cemetery,  President Obama says, "But as our service members return, many are discovering a new battlefield as they leave the military and search for civilian employment opportunities." Watch his entire speech.

If the evening commute home from his Texas Army base includes a grocery store stop, National Guard Staff Sgt. Scott Gilbreath will purposely change out of his camo so that, ironically, he can blend with other customers.

“My work clothes are the Army Combat Uniform so I stand out from the crowd in the very clothing designed to hide me,” Gilbreath said. “Without fail, (inside the store) will be a well-meaning person — sometimes a sweet grandmother or an older gentleman with his VFW hat on, or sometimes another young man — who will stop and shake my hand and say ‘thank you.’ I get kind of choked up inside.”

He appreciates the warm words yet acknowledges they also give him an awkward sensation, as if the courtesy is a bit misplaced. 

“It is hard to pin down why we soldiers have the uncomfortable feeling when someone says ‘thank you,’ ” said Gilbreath, who has served more than 20 years in the Army. "Thank you? For doing the job that we were trained to do?”

On the national holiday reserved to give veterans our most heartfelt and public appreciation, six current and former service members revealed to NBC News that hearing “thank you for your service” routinely leaves them feeling uneasy. Their reasons vary.

One veteran called the comment “off-putting.” Two more often wonder if the expression is just a politically correct, rote affirmation — no deeper than “have a nice day” — which, for them, can turn a forthright “thank you” into a “mild irritation,” they said. And a fourth veteran, Robert Sanders, who spent time in Afghanistan, says when complete strangers offer ex-military members some blanket gratitude for their service, it “makes us squirm a little.”

Sanders used the word “us” because veterans say this slight tinge of disquiet is a prevalent phenomenon throughout the U.S. military and much of the veteran community — a little-discussed fact of life that simply comes with wearing the uniform.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

The country expresses its gratitude for veterans and their service with ceremonies and parades.

“I would say that it’s just me, but I've seen and heard the same sentiment from many others,” said Sanders, a former Air Force master sergeant. “So maybe it's something in who we are or who the military makes us.”

Please don’t misunderstand, each of the six veterans say. They are sincerely grateful for your respect. But they’re also not sure how to respond. And many feel unsettled by the notion that thousands of their brothers and sisters — in Afghanistan, Iraq and wars before — made the supreme sacrifice. They deserve the “thank yous” but aren’t here to accept them.

In contrast to those who didn't come home or who left body parts behind, many veterans and service members believe they haven’t done anything extraordinary to earn your individual admiration. They just completed (or are performing) their assigned tasks. They were compensated for the work. In return, some also got college educations plus federal health care and pensions. They’ve already received what they were due, what they were promised. No “thank yous” are needed, some veterans say. 

“I’m no war hero. I did what I was asked to do, but nothing special,” said Sgt. First Class Ed Jarveaux. He began his Army career in 1999. He noticed that unsolicited, civilian expressions of gratitude emerged after the 9/11 attacks. He served in the Washington, D.C. area on Sept. 11, 2001 and now is an Army reservist.

“I volunteered. I didn’t do it for free,” Jarveaux said. Two years ago, after he entered a grocery store in Fairbanks, Alaska, to buy Thanksgiving provisions to cook dinner for some military buddies, a random woman spotted him and told the checkout clerk that she would pay for Jarveaux’s purchases. “I thanked her. I’m fairly certain, though, that I was at a higher salary than the woman. This would be, maybe, why I felt a little guilty” about that gesture. 

“But it is definitely complex — why we feel this way. There are so many guys who had it a lot harder that me, who made more of a sacrifice. It feels a bit like that ‘thank you’ belongs to someone else,” Jarveaux said. “I’ve made my peace with the fact that they can’t find the wounded warriors or the families of someone who died in service to offer that thank you. So it’s my responsibility to accept it graciously."

Spontaneous “thank yous” still take Grant Moon by surprise — and he doesn’t startle easily, having spent parts of 2007 and 2008 in Baghdad during a 13-year career as a soldier and captain in the Army National Guard and Army Reserves.

“Fulfilling your duty is unlike a favor, which I think of as deserving a personal thank you,” Moon said. “I always appreciate those that take the time to recognize our service, but I never expect it.”

In fact, through trial and error, some veterans have spent years crafting a proper, comfortable response. For Jarveaux, his standard reply has become: "Thank you for noticing." But, he added: "I don’t want it to be taken as sarcastically, in passing. It is sincere.”

Then again, the psychology of this larger unease seems fairly simple to diagnose. These are men and women who willingly sign up to be exhaustively taught and trained to become part of a vast collective, to think of the greater good and the larger mission, to work seamlessly and selflessly with the soldier, sailor, airman and Marine next to them. They see themselves as teammates, not as individual players.

Just listen to Sanders and you’ll hear some of that: “I found it of surprising note the first time someone stopped me in the street and thanked me for my service.  Even now, just thinking back on that, I feel a flush of being mildly uncomfortable.  Not about the job or service, both of which I am very proud, but of being singled out like that. Very few (service members) stay long term for any reason beyond patriotism and a desire to be part of something important and bigger than ourselves.”

One of the few moments when many veterans feel fully relaxed with a “thank you” is when someone with a shared experience offers those words. 

“Where I've seen it said with real power is among veterans themselves,” said Jim Henry, who served as a Navy surface warfare officer from 1979 to 1982. “I attended a reunion of World War II-era veterans from the USS Enterprise recently — aptly nicknamed, ‘America's Fightingest Ship of World War II.’ They seemed to appreciate hearing, ‘Thank you for your service,’ but they seemed to appreciate it more from somebody else who served, no matter what era.” 

And then there are those veterans who feel they should be sharing their own appreciation with us.

Mike Starich served seven years in the Marine Corps as an F-4 Phantom flight officer and as a recruiter. He separated at the rank of captain in 1992, acknowledging that his job brought him “a few near misses (with death) … actually more than a few.” He is another who admits “it does make me a bit uncomfortable when folks do that.”

“My experience in the Marine Corps and Marine Aviation, the highs and lows, the dangers and the boredom, helped shape who I am today. I view the experience as a gift,” Starich said. “In fact, after thinking this through a bit, I believe that it is more truthful to say that I owe the U.S. government and the American people the thanks.”

So should we be thanking veterans?

“I think people are doing fine. I think just saying ‘thank you’ is fine. I guess I wouldn’t want it to change at all,” Jarveaux said.  

Starich, however, suggested some tweaks to the current phraseology of military gratitude.

To current active duty personnel: “Welcome home. How can I help?”

And to veterans long home from duty: “I respect your service. It is meaningful to me ...” Then explain why you feel that way, Starich said. “This will help the veteran feel that it is sincere and honest, not just the politically correct thing to say.”

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