Giving Thanks


“Thank you for your service.”

It is an expression that rolls off the tongue. Thanking someone in uniform as they trek through an airport or walk down a sidewalk has become commonplace.

The expression can take many different forms, from a simple ‘thanks’ and maybe a handshake to a fireworks popping flyover, flag-waving spectacle at a professional football game.

It is certainly most often a gesture made in hopes of lifting the spirit of a service member, a tiny step forward to express appreciation for what a soldier has done for the country, whatever that might be, from suffering the horrors of warfare to shuffling papers at the Pentagon.

It can also be a gesture more designed for the benefit the gesturor rather than the gesturee.

In a New York Times article in February, 2015, writer Matt Richtel talked with a Green Beret who speculated that the ‘thanks’ line “alleviates some of the civilian guilt.” He said “They have no skin in the game with these wars. There’s no draft.”

To some, Richtel wrote, “the thanks comes across as shallow, disconnected, a reflexive offering from people who while meaning well have no clue what soldiers did over there, or what motivated them to go, and who would never have gone themselves nor sent their own sons and daughters. Thanking soldiers for their service symbolizes the ease of sending a volunteer army to wage war at great distance—physically, spiritually, economically.”

Maybe that is part of what has been wrong with the wars we have fought a continent and a half away, in Iraq or Afghanistan or some other hell hole in no particular country. We civilians, especially those who have never served in the military, have not been asked for much. President George W. Bush asked little of us beyond our patriotism and loyalty to cause and country. The real deception of the Bush campaign against Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda was not weapons of mass destruction, it was the notion that the citizenry, could become armchair quartermasters, living a normal life, not having to be engaged in the battles ahead, not with their tax dollars, not with their community service, not with their sweat, toil and eventually their tears.

It makes sense then, that our very sincere and sometimes poignant expressions of thanksare missing something from the masses, the conveyance of any sense of mutual sacrifice.

It’s not like the gratitude is coming from someone who just put in extra voluntary hours down at the reconverted auto plant, punching rivets into a brand new tank.

My daughter, Captain Erin Johnson, has not been deployed overseas, for which I give thanks every day, but she is a doctor of physical therapy who sees the human cost of military service every day.

She sincerely appreciates those who say thanks, but believes most of those in the military would appreciate even more an outward acknowledgement to, or an expression of, those characteristics about America and Americans worth defending, worth the sacrifice.

“If you want to say thank you,” she wrote us after my wife sent her the Times article, “do something that makes you proud to be American and free. Do something that strengthens the brotherhood among us as a people, even if it is something in your own community. That is what drives us to do what we do and that gives meaning to thank you.”

It makes sense and it makes gratitude real and meaningful, doing what some Americans actually, do helping the troops, helping their neighbors, being respectful of what they are fighting for, and building where others tear down, being a positive charge rather than a negative one.

Captain Johnson also found something deeply inconsistent with those who condemn the government and then thank those in the service of the government for doing their job.

This is, of course, the season for giving thanks and, hopefully, Americans from every walk of life will continue to walk up to soldiers and do just that. It is good, even if it benefits the thankor more than the thankee.

But like the Army doctor said, we can put greater meaning behind the words and greater appreciation in the gesture if we rededicate ourselves to preserving what they are protecting, a way of life and a model of self-governance that requires all of us to meet some basic responsibilities and practice the basic values that are the bedrock of our society and our government.

We are letting those values, the brotherhood that binds us, the values that guide us, and all of the painful lessons of the last 200 years, fade from black to gray.

We must recapture the preciousness of what we have and what others do so we can keep it. Then we can continue to say at least once each year, “please pass the gravy.”


Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff. He is currently a principal with the OB-C Group.