For the nation and kingdom that will not serve thee shall perish; yea, those nations shall be utterly wasted. (Isaiah 60:12)
On the way to a coerced bargain safari with my wife, June, I pulled into the local Quick Trip to silence the nagging Low Fuel warning light on our Altima. At the pump, I popped the fuel port cover latch, got out from driver’s seat, and walked back to uncap the fuel fill port. Lost in the mindless routine of inserting the gas card, making the fuel selection, inserting the pump nozzle into the fill port and squeezing the handle to the start the flow of liquid gold, I hardly noticed the black compact sedan that pulled up at the pump behind me.
As I scanned the rows of gas pumps and observed how others practiced a similar routine, I caught him approaching me from my right side. Instantly my internal alarms sounded as the wiry frame came near. His shirt-sleeve shirt exposed tattooed arms without a hint of normal skin tone. Beneath the tattered ball cap flowed long stringy locks of jet-black hair that hung in clumps of greasy strands just past his shoulders. His face was leathery and wrinkled, probably more from years of too much smoking than from age, and the trimmed portion of his scraggly beard looked like it hadn’t met a razor in weeks. His tattered, dirty jeans, wrinkled, untucked, button-down plaid shirt, and muddy work boots gave him the appearance of a homeless man. A woman, that looked old enough to be his mother, got out of the passenger’s side and busied herself looking around the car for the place to put in the gas.
Without pausing one second to help his mother, he walked directly toward me right hand extended. I thought, “Here it comes. This guy is going to hit me up for some gas money, and he’ll have some sob story about his dad suddenly having a stroke, and he has to drive his mother up to Oklahoma City to see him.” As I formulated my response, his hand invaded my personal space, and I took it. He said, “Thank you for your service.”
What? I had forgotten that I was wearing my Navy-blue ball cap with the white and gold fowled anchor and the bold embroidered USN identifying me as a Navy veteran. “Thank you,” I stammered. I couldn’t think of anything else to say. He nodded and turned around and walked back to his car. I’m sure he was a little let down by my lack of enthusiasm. To be sure, the encounter was not what I had expected.
I’m proud of my service for my country. I often wear apparel that displays that pride like that cap. But after I put it on, I never give it a second thought. I am often approached and offered similar sentiments of appreciation for my service, and I am always at a loss for how to respond.
I enlisted in the Navy in 1970, at the height of the Vietnam War, and served on active duty until 1974. Later I served another eight years in the US Naval Reserves. When I first joined, there was a draft, and my number was up. The Army was in bad need of “grunts,” and anti-war sentiment dominated the prevailing national mood. Many young men my age were getting married or going to college to avoid the draft. Others burned their draft cards in protest or ran away to Canada to avoid service. I had no one I wanted to marry at that time, and I was too poor to go to college. The other options of burning my draft card or running away to Canada were unthinkable for me.
I honestly felt that I owed my duty to my country, but at the same time, I wasn’t eager to spill my blood in a war directed by politicians rather than generals – a war that those in charge did not intend to win. That made no sense to me, yet I still felt a strong obligation to serve my country. So, I joined the Navy and fulfilled my obligation. That is what I did. I did my duty. I did what I was supposed to do. I served, and I was proud to serve. I did nothing outstanding or extraordinary. I took an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. I executed my responsibilities to my shipmates, to my ship, to the Navy, and to my country. I did my job; that’s all.
So when I am thanked for my service, I really do not know how to respond. I only did what I was supposed to do. Why is that so special? Is it that somewhere along the way we have lost our sense of responsibility, our sense of duty, our sense of honor? I served my country. It was my privilege. It was my duty. Next time I’m thanked for my service, perhaps I will just respond with, “You’re welcome. I just did my job.”