Recently a man thrust $20 into my hand. Standing in line waiting to order my lunch, I felt someone grab my shoulder, spinning me around. Before I could react, I felt something being pressed into my hand. Looking down, I saw Andrew Jackson staring at me. This was not a random act of kindness. I was wearing my Air Force uniform and the man wanted to thank a veteran.
It was unusual for me to be traveling in uniform. As a reserve officer, I only do military duty from time to time, so I don’t wear it often. Moreover, even when I travel on orders, security concerns usually demand dressing in civilian clothes. This time, my schedule was too tight to change, and I found myself conspicuously in uniform, an inadvertent invitation for well-intentioned praise.
I’ve never been comfortable with this praise. Too often, I feel Americans fawn over veterans, lionizing our service members and holding them arbitrarily in high regard. Perhaps my concerns stem from not feeling worthy of any praise. That my sacrifice was never great enough and that the burdens of others were much more significant. Whatever the reason, I squirm whenever I’m thanked for my service.
Veterans Day is one exception. This is the date specifically set aside to recognize all those who have served in wartime, regardless of how great or small their sacrifice. It does seem more appropriate to give thanks on this day, and my heart is more open to accepting it. I actually chafe when people neglect to acknowledge it and have chastised more than one of my friends for overlooking it.
Of course, there is no shortage of adulation thrown to veterans on this day. Corporations love the opportunity to wrap themselves in an American flag to prove their patriotism. Dozens of major restaurant chains, and many local establishments as well, offer veterans discounts on Nov. 11. Interested vets can check out a list here.
Everyone loves a free meal, but many veterans I know are amused by the glib efforts of big business on this holiday. A gratis order of jalapeño poppers doesn’t seem equal to the burden that so many have borne. Their efforts can come across as cheap patriotism meant more as public relations than a true nod to the sacrifice of our service men and women.
Moreover, while well-intentioned, these handouts can conceal the greater concerns that veterans have. We face a Byzantine VA bureaucracy, high rates of suicide, alcoholism, and divorce among our peers, chronic illnesses, and an overall feeling of disengagement from civilian society. If you really want to thank a vet — solve those problems.
These are tough issues to be tackled though, and on this day, a better solution may be closer to home. Veterans all have a story to tell and usually love to tell it. So, on this Veterans Day, make a point of thanking the veterans you know. If you don’t know any, find one. They are all around us. Ask to hear their stories. What they’ve seen, what they’ve learned. Perhaps the best form of gratitude is acknowledging that their sacrifices, no matter how big or small, are worth hearing.
And as for the $20 I found myself holding? I did everything in my power to return it, but despite my protestations, I could not prevail on my generous benefactor take it back. The last thing one wants when representing the military in public is a scene. And so unable to refuse my benefactor’s generosity, I bought an $8 cheeseburger . . . and left a $12 tip.David Max Korzen is a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a graduate of Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies.