Doing so was safe. It was a sunny afternoon and I was pumping gas into my compact silver SUV. A vehicle pulled up behind mine, and the driver got out of his car to fill up, too.
He was wearing camouflage green Army fatigues. I waited until I caught his eye. “Thank you for your service,” I said.
There was a beat. “Oh,” he replied. “Thank you. I really appreciate you saying that.”
As I drove away, I wondered how often soldiers are approached by unknown civilians like me, saying those five words. I hope it’s a lot—especially when I also recalled how rare it was for Vietnam vets to hear this greeting. Instead, many came home to angry protestors spitting on them and calling them baby killers.
I hope we never again engage in a war so divisive and unpopular. Although I’m not a fan of armed conflict (I like the bumper sticker that reads I’m Already Against the Next War), our soldiers deserve to hear that we support them.
That’s because while I may not agree with the cause, these fearless folks are still serving our country in situations that, at best, are intensely boring and monotonous. At worst, they’re stationed in the sketchiest parts of the world, where they could be killed in an instant.
But mostly, soldiers deserve my respect because they’re brave in other ways that most of us never have to be.
Perhaps, early on, they saw no viable future in the hardscrabble communities—places including the South Side of Chicago; Native American reservations in the Dakotas, and hollers in West Virginia—where they were born and raised. The military offers these populations a way to get out.
And there are other reasons, probably more common than we think.
Rob Scheer is the founder of Comfort Cases, a Maryland-based non-profit that gifts new backpacks, blankets and books to foster kids. But when he was 18 years old, a high school senior and newly kicked out of the foster system himself, Scheer found himself homeless.
He signed up for the Navy. “I didn’t join the military because I loved my country,” he says. “I was going in it because I was hungry, I was cold, I was scared, and I had nowhere to go.”
Women might have other motives.
Maybe they’re escaping an abusive boyfriend, father or husband. Or perhaps not college bound, they see dead end futures as fast food workers and receptionists. In fact, a 2017 Pew Research Center report states that 15 percent of our active personnel are women, up four points from 1990.
Then, there’s this.
Years before same sex marriage was legal, I knew two Air Force veterans, both lesbians (although not a couple). By the time I’d had met them, they’d already figured out that being supported by a man wasn’t ever going to be in their picture. So they joined the service and were taught skills that turned into well-paying jobs after leaving the military.
Another demographic, and it’s a growing one, is middle class young men and women who want to attend a university, but don’t want crippling student loan debt.
That’s where the GI Bill comes in: created in 1944, it provides up to three years of education while a soldier is on active duty. Veterans can also take advantage of the bill, because funding is good for 15 years following military release. This means that with careful planning, a serviceman can obtain an undergraduate degree with zero debt. Those who take advantage of the program are obligated to serve for four years in exchange for tuition, but it’s still a good deal.
The back stories of how and why our military personnel came to wear their uniforms are as unique as each soldier.
None of us can ever know every story. As for me, I’ll just thank a soldier whenever I can.
It’s the least I can do.