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It's Veterans Day

A tip of the cap to those who served, and those who supported those who served. (Z), in particular, would like to acknowledge his forebears George and Jean Stewart, Jimmy and Margaret Bates, and Jerry Hayes, all of whom answered the call of duty when their country called.

We are going to do something a little unusual today. We got a message from reader E.K. San Mateo, CA, which contained a statement and several questions. We're going to share the statement here, answer one of the questions in the "History" section below, and turn the other questions over to the readers. So, E.K. is kind of the star of today's posting. Take it away, E.K.:

With Veteran's day upon us, I find myself once again on the receiving end of various "thank you for your service" comments. For years, I have struggled to respond to these well-intentioned statements gracefully, and I would appreciate any perspective you or other readers might share. In particular, I don't spend much time around other vets these days, and I know others had markedly different experiences. I'd appreciate counterpoints to the way I've internalized this seemingly simple expression.

My discomfort exists at a personal and social level.

Personally, I am a very lucky person and my 4 years of "service" was a square deal. As a college applicant in the 90's, I was fortunate to have a strong résumé, but my family's means were a bit below the level required to cover what was left of the expenses post-financial aid expenses at the schools I aspired to attend. So I applied for and accepted an ROTC scholarship. The proposition was simple: The Navy would pay 4 years of tuition plus a small stipend ($150/month!) to attend my dream school. In return, I would work (serve?) as a Naval officer for at least 4 years thereafter. Of course, armed with the degree the scholarship made possible, I could have spent my first four post-college years in a far more lucrative, comfortable, lower risk (but only slightly, really) alternative universe. But that world was never within my reach absent Uncle Sam's largesse—I simply had to wait, and repay my debt first. My deferred opportunity arrived on schedule. I've had a wonderful life and career that I otherwise would have never realized. Oh, and I met a most remarkable woman at college who changed my life in more important ways still. So, as I said, it was a square deal—and then some really.

So, that explains my personal discomfort. But I think there is a more interesting, generalizable concern. I worry that while this "thank you for your service" sentiment probably applied to most vets at many points in our history when the preponderance had been conscripted into violent conflicts at great personal risk, without choice and in service of others, it feels broadly anachronistic today—best reserved for a dwindling number of vets, whose service matched those particular circumstances. I, certainly, and I suspect many other vets, don't feel worthy of this "stolen glory," and I'm loath to cheapen the gratitude others deserve by saying a simple "You're welcome!" And it somehow feels like a misplaced social priority to lionize (even if it's just a little) folks who just made an employment decision that was best for them simply because that choice resulted in a military job.

This combination of what I regard as misplaced gratitude and occasional dog whistles makes it hard for me to respond simply and gracefully to what are mostly innocuous, sincere expressions of thanks. Any thoughts from you or other vets on how to contextualize and respond to these expressions would be much appreciated! I'm already socially awkward enough, so you would be sparing others from my odd body language and facial expressions as I muster a mumbled "You're welcome." that leaves them cold. Thank you in advance for your service if you can end my perseverations, or you can suggest a better response.

Thanks for your excellent and thoughtful questions, E.K. We hope and expect we'll have some thoughtful answers for you next week.

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