A man from the Navy Medicine Training Support Center thanks Fred Navarro (right) for his service in the military.
An active-duty member of the U.S. Navy thanks Purple Heart recipient Fred Navarro (right) for his service in the military during a parade. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Almost half of United States veterans and active duty service members feel uncomfortable with being thanked for their service, a new survey has revealed.  

According to a poll commissioned by the Cohen Veterans Network (CVN), a national nonprofit network of mental health clinics for post-9/11 veterans and military families, 49 percent of active and former military service members feel uneasy with the expression “thank you for your service.”

Meanwhile, the same poll revealed that 90 percent of Americans say they have thanked a veteran for their service when they see them in public.

“I have had people thank me for my service, but I feel like there is no need because it was something I chose to do. So I don’t need anyone to thank me,” said Adam Frey of San Antonio, a 37-year-old former Army diver who served as a salvage and rescue diver in Iraq in 2006. “But really, it’s like any compliment, and some people feel uncomfortable with getting compliments in general. So it’s not that saying thank you is a polarizing thing to say, it’s just that some people don’t want to hear it or don’t know how to respond.”

Frey was not among the more than 2,000 adults in the United States polled as part of the CVN Veterans Day Survey 2019, which from Oct. 10 to Oct. 14 asked veterans and service members if they are comfortable when civilians thank them for serving, what they might like them to say instead, and what they believe is important for people to know about veterans.  

The poll found that instead of a simple thank you, most veterans and service members preferred questions about when they served, where they were stationed, and what specific jobs they did while serving.

Commenting on the survey, Dave Gowel, CEO of RallyPoint Networks, a digital platform for the military community, said in a news release Wednesday: “What we’ve learned is if you’ve met one veteran, you’ve met one veteran. We are as diverse in our interests as are civilians. When it comes to being thanked for our service, this diversity still applies and you can’t make everyone happy.”

Armand Fermin, a 55-year-old San Antonio Army veteran who served as a medic from 1983 to 2007, said that as much as a thank you might not go over well with some veterans and active duty service members, serving in the military can just as easily not go over well with civilians.

“I hear thank you all the time. And just as I have been thanked, I have had things thrown at me [and have been asked], ‘Why did you serve? Why are you killing people?’” Fermin said. “I appreciate being thanked because there is a very small percentage of the U.S. population that actually serves in uniform. It isn’t for everyone. I don’t begrudge anyone who doesn’t serve, but I do appreciate the thanks.”

The Veterans Day Survey 2019 results were released alongside a new initiative launched by CVN titled “Beyond ‘Thank You for Your Service,'” an awareness campaign aimed at connecting veterans and civilians in more meaningful ways.

“Taking an interest in a veteran’s story about their time in the military is one way to engage beyond just saying thank you for your service,” CVN CEO and president Anthony Hassan said in a statement.

According to the survey, about 58 percent of veterans and service members would prefer someone show their appreciation by donating to or volunteering at a veteran-related organization. 

Also among the survey’s findings, 88 percent of Americans believe there should be more programs available to help break the military-civilian divide. As evidence of the divide, 39 percent of Americans report that they are unsure about how to start a conversation with a veteran. Additionally, 24 percent of Americans report they would feel uncomfortable talking to a veteran they just met about their service in the U.S. military.

An American flag flies over Fort Sam National Cemetery.

San Antonio native Gilberto Biera Jr., a 72-year-old Marine veteran who served in the Vietnam War, said that because he is a Purple Heart recipient and it says so on his license plate, he is thanked “almost everywhere” he goes.

“It makes me feel proud. It makes me feel proud that I did something for the country, and it makes me feel proud that people would say it to me in front of my wife or my daughter, because in many ways I did this for them and for the future,” Biera said.

But Biera understands why it might be hard for some to be thanked for serving in the military, “because it can bring back memories of what they went through that might be” difficult to confront.

“Sometimes people wish they didn’t serve, or they were drafted, or they don’t like thinking about or telling the stories from when they served,” Biera said. “But I like to use it to remind myself what we went through and to thank God for me still being here. And then I get reminded to take a moment and give thanks for everyone who didn’t make it back.”

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.