One of the joys of working from home is being able to go out to lunch with my husband on any given day. He works from home as well and since our son is at a day camp this week, he invited me to a very romantic lunch at the local Chinese buffet in town.
It’s not the best restaurant in town but it’s one of the few sitdown places for Chinese. On any give weekday, you’ll find it fairly full with the staff from a local medical office or with one of the many retired couples in town.
After we sat and placed our order for two waters, a hot pot of tea, and some hot and sour soup, we headed for the small buffet in the back of the restaurant. As I neared my favorite, Crab Rangoons, I noticed an older man tucked away in a booth by himself. His hat caught my eye as it read “Korean War Veteran.”
In a matter of seconds, I tried to recall when the Korean War had occurred (I was pretty sure it was in the 1950s – I was a huge fan of M*A*S*H, after all) and quickly calculate if he really looked old enough to have served in the war. But I was hungry and my math skills weren’t so great, so I decided to just ask him.
“Are you a Korean War veteran?”
“I’m sorry. What?”
Pointing to his hat, I ask again, “Are you a veteran of the Korean War?”
“Yes,” he replied.
“Well, thank you for your service.”
And then I walked back to my table. I told my husband about the little encounter and how it just felt so cliche. Like, I said thank you for your service because it’s the thing to say. And somehow it just didn’t feel like enough. But what should I do?
When my husband joined the military many years ago (before I knew him), it was against his mother’s wishes. It’s not that she didn’t believe in the noble cause of serving for one’s country. It’s that she didn’t approve of the way American soldiers were treated.
Granted, she lived through the Vietnam War and saw soldiers returning home to spitting and shouting. I suppose that’s the image that stayed with her. U.S. citizens don’t respect their soldiers. And for many years, I think she was right.
I’m no expert on American pop culture but I would guess things started to change right around the time Top Gun came out. We all saw the movie. We all idolized Tom Cruise. We all wanted to be Navy fighter pilots. It’s true for me too. I rode the wave.
When I was in high school, I joined the NJROTC unit because I loved what the military stood for. But my experience in school gave me enough of a taste of military life to know that I wasn’t entirely sure I was ready for that right after high school. So I thought I’d go to college and wait to see how I felt about a career in the military.
Twenty years later, I’m still living the civilian life but feel surrounded by the military.
When I met my husband in 1999, he had been honorably discharged from military service for several years so I never had to experience the highs and lows of being a military spouse. But he was able to share a lot of his world experience and help me understand not only the military culture but what it’s really like to be in a terrifying situation.
Over the years, we’ve watched tons of movies and documentaries about the military (his favorites are Black Hawk Down and Restrepo) and we’ve also watched attitudes change. While there are still many changes to be made in the way we treat our military, most people recognize the American soldier as an honorable man or woman. Someone who has given their time, and sometimes their life, in service to their country.
So as we finished our lunch and the waitress went to hand us our check, I asked if we could pay for the lunch of the gentleman tucked away in the corner. She agreed and after we paid, we quietly got up and left. And I hope he knows that buying him lunch was my way of really saying thank you.
Do you find yourself in this situation? How do you show gratitude without feeling too showy or over-the-top? I’d love to hear some of your thoughts for both veterans and active duty members of our military.