14 August, 2006

Stickers and Magnets and Well-worn Words

Though I've been involved in "troop support" activities of various intensity and manner for several years now, there's one thing I've never been entirely comfortable with...

Saying simply "Thank you" to a stranger.

It's not that I'm bashful or that the feeling isn't there. Quite the opposite. I actually find "thank you" a preposterously inadequate way to express my feelings, and it seems almost cliche.

"Thank you" is just two little words that can slip so easily from the tongue, regardless of depth of sincerity or understanding or lack thereof. It's like when a friend of your mother's hands you a $200 check out of the blue (happened to me over a decade ago when I had holes in my shoes and no coat). "Thank you" doesn't even begin to cover the feelings. The sense of indebtedness is acute, but emotional scenes would make all involved uncomfortable.

I get a similar feeling these days at the USO. A segment of our local Marines are within just over a week from deploying to Iraq. When they walk into the USO and someone says, "Where are you heading?" they'll say they're back from pre-deployment leave. Often they volunteer that they're headed to Iraq for the second or third time. Their emotional states range from solemn acceptance to muted excitement, to the bravado of irony-dipped jokes about "killing terrorists."

And then there are the guys redeploying or on mid-deployment leave. I'll never forget the senior Marine officer who dropped in on the day we had a couple hundred civilians packed into the USO as they awaited pick-up for their Tiger cruise. He walked in dressed in digital cammies and carrying a small camouflage bag. He greeted me brusquely but politely and barked a few terse and irritated-sounding questions about the swarm of civilians as he signed in and flashed his ID.

He then thanked me, picked up his bag, backed up the 10 feet to the wall alongside the entrance doors... and stood there in coiled tension with his back inches from the wall, visually scanning the room for the next 40 minutes. I pointed him out to a fellow volunteer: "Check that guy out."

After observing him for about 20 seconds, she looked at me blankly. "He's on leave from combat," I said, hoping that since she had more experience she might know how to encourage him to sit down and try to rest.

"He told you?"

"He doesn't need to. Look," I gestured. Her expression remained puzzled.

I got distracted by someone who needed help and lost track of him for awhile. I finally saw him again an hour after he'd arrived. He was sitting in a chair along a wall that afforded him a view of the two hallways and most of the main room of the facilities, still in coiled tension, still silently scanning the room.

I wished there was a way to set him at ease, but I knew he might not even be aware of what he was doing. I wanted to walk over to him, to shake his hand and say, "Welcome home," then tell him how unspeakably grateful I was that because he faced the darkness I didn't have to. I think I would have, if other things hadn't constantly demanded my attention that day.

But yet I would've hesitated, for who am I to intrude on someone in that manner? What could the words "thank you" possibly mean when I am merely a stranger? Just more empty words from a random civilian who doesn't have a clue what he's been through?

Other volunteers seem more comfortable. They toss off a "Thank you for your service" as a guy walks out the door to catch his next plane or meet the local shuttle. They tell the Marine recruits nervously waiting for their DI, "You're doing the right thing."

Me? I find the words stick in my throat. Instead, I try to smile warmly as I tell the about-to-deploy "Good luck. Stay safe," and give the recruits or those arriving for SERE training a hearty and sincere "Good luck."

Sometimes I manage to add "thank you" as they turn and leave, but the words rarely come out sounding casual or easy, and they always feel facile on my lips. I marvel at those who toss off a light-hearted "thank you for your service" to everyone who walks through the door.

And sometimes I wonder whether a "thank you" from a stranger on the street really means anything to a warfighter. Yeah, it's nice that someone cares, but surely they wonder whether that someone knows what he or she is really thanking them for and whether that someone has ever done anything more than offer lip service...

I don't have a "Support the Troops" magnet on my car. I used to have one that meant a lot to me. It was given to me by a veteran of OEF, but it was stolen off my car in a school parking lot two years ago. I haven't bought another one because it feels somehow self-aggrandizing to do so. What is the purpose of the magnet? To advertise that I support the troops? Why advertise it? I don't want attention for what I do. I just want to do it.

I was reading and lurking in a rather high-intensity military chat forum recently. It was interesting to hear some of the members say that it doesn't matter to them what any "outsiders" think of their service. They say, "I know what I did and why I did it and why it mattered, and the only thing that matters to me now is what my brothers think of it."

Isn't it awfully presumptuous for me to think some stranger cares what I think of him, cares that he has my verbal approbation? If someone I didn't know told me they thought I was a nice person, I'd look at them like they were nuts; I don't care what some random unknown thinks of me. Does a warfighter?

In days when people claim to be able to "support the troops but not the war," does an easily-spoken "Thank you for your service" really mean anything anymore?