Incoming: Thank You for Your Service

May 1, 2015
By Adm. James Stavridis, USN (Ret.)

So often these days, as I sail along in my second year of retirement, people—very nicely—say to me, “Thank you for your service.” I appreciate that deeply, and I think every veteran does. Some veterans have served just a year or two, of course, and some grizzled folks like me stayed in for well over three decades. But regardless of the length of service, we all enjoy that momentary sense of being part of something far larger than just ourselves—Navy, Army, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard, and so on.

But lately, I have been thinking about the many ways people serve their nation.

At The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where I serve as dean, we have dozens of Peace Corps volunteers each year. They have served in some of the most dangerous countries in the world, far from established centers of security and health care, often in very, very basic personal circumstances. They contribute to our security in very direct ways by helping shape a vision of the United States that is compassionate, competent and caring. Thank you for your service.

I have learned a lot about various teaching programs, such as Teach For America, where students spend a year or more in challenged settings here in the United States. The vast majority of them could be starting lucrative training programs on Wall Street, or heading into consulting or sales or a hundred other careers that would “ensure their future.” But they choose to put our national future—America’s students—ahead of their own personal ambition. They stand with so many dedicated teachers all around the country who are paid well below what many could earn in the marketplace but choose to teach. Thank you for your service.

And I can recall the 11th of September 2001, when I was in the Pentagon. My office was on the side of the building hit by the airplane, and I was lucky that day. When I stumbled out onto the grass and looked back at the burning building, I was surrounded by the real heroes of the day: the first responders. Police, firefighters and emergency medical technicians all were running toward the building while the rest of us moved away to safety. They represented all of those who undertake dangerous and so often-thankless work for low pay on behalf of every one of us. Thank you for your service.

Journalists are so often maligned, but many of them do deeply dangerous work on the front lines of crises around the world, risking their lives to tell the story. We rely on them in profound ways we often do not appreciate, and I have served alongside many of them who were embedded with me on missions to Iraq and Afghanistan. Danny Pearl and James Foley and many others have died working hard to bring us the truth; others are captured and escape like my friend Richard Engel. These foreign correspondents so often shine a light on much of what is evil and wrong in the world. Nearly all are brave and steady under fire, armed only with a notepad, a recorder and a flipphone. Thank you for your service.

When Ebola flared up in West Africa, and earthquakes destroyed Haiti, and Japan’s nuclear reactors melted down, who “rode to the sound of the guns” the fastest? Specialized medical personnel—doctors and nurses with extensive expertise in treating victims of disasters that result in everything from radiation sickness to communicable diseases. These are not the specialties that pay the big bucks, but they are the ones that do the most good in the midst of poverty, despair and natural disaster. Thank you for your service.

We are lucky in this nation to be surrounded by entrepreneurs who wake up every morning and think about how to create jobs. Their energy, vitality and creativity are the spark plug of our economy. Is there a profit motive? Sure. But in the end, the security of our nation is not built on our guns but rather on our ideas—and the ability to translate them into reality. And so many of the truly visionary business leaders I meet are more about job creation, the social value of improving the world and the long-range future of our nation than they are about anything else. Thank you for your service.

Allow me to be truly controversial: Think about our elected officials. Politics has become blood sport in America, and it seems at times—to paraphrase Jim Morrison, the Doors’ lead singer—that no one here gets out alive. Any elected representative, at every level from city water works commission to the president of the United States, is subject to endless scrutiny, bottomless skepticism and often, deep personal unpopularity. The pay is low compared to what many of them could make outside of government, the hours long, the challenges and frustrations enormous. And some of them are not perfect, just as in the military or any other group. But they are willing to put themselves out there, to get into the arena, and the vast majority do it for the right reasons: they care about causes and the big issues and about their community, state or the nation. Thank you for your service.

There are of course countless others—from church volunteers to soup kitchen cooks to social workers to animal shelter operators and so many more—who serve in quiet, unpublicized ways without big compensation or kudos. I salute them, and when someone thanks me for my service, I will be quietly paying that kindness forward to the many others who deserve our thanks as well. To all of them, I say thank you for your service.

Adm. James Stavridis was the 16th Supreme Allied Commander for NATO from 2009-2013. He is the 12th Dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, from which he holds a Ph.D. in international law, and he is chairman of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Board of Directors.

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Adm. Stavridis properly recognizes that many others beside we who wear or wore the uniform also deserve thanks, and yet, having heard a reflexive "Thank you for your service" many times, I am saddened how inadequate those words are to the task.

Many are remembered for deeds done and sacrifices endured for others, but it seems to me that the truest and best of thanks are expressed by learning the lessons that service teaches, making it unnecessary, that they who serve need not suffer or die on our account.

What might be the best of thanks for those who wear and wore our country's uniform? If only our nation could see itself honestly, how false we are to our principles and promises, and how thin the veneer of virtue is that we present to the world, and how transparent our hypocrisy. The best of thanks is to deserve the reputation we believe our due, to make that so apparent that even our enemies must admire us and respect us more than they hate us. Then we and our brothers and sisters-in-arms will no longer need to die to preserve an illusion, for we will actually be good, and strong, and true.

From a longer work:

And know our living ever watch,
To ask, as we would do,
Is what you are, worth what we paid?
Is what we paid, worth you?
© Cortland Richmond

Cortland E. Richmond
SFC USA, Retired

Excellent article. It is important to support all those who uphold the values of a democratic society.

As a retired older Navy officer, I very much agree with ADM Stavridis' article, and I fully support the sentiment.
My habit, upon being told "Thanks for your service." as a veteran, is to respond "Thank a teacher." but all the other professions and avocations listed are excellent as well.
Bravo Zulu, Admiral!
Dave L

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