Thanks for serving

MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. -- Thanks for serving! 

How many times have you heard that phrase? Have you ever been minding your own business and had a neighbor, a friend from downtown or even a complete stranger walk up to you and thank you for serving your country? 

You've heard it at military appreciation days, on the 4th of July during parades, and certainly in airports where men and women in uniform are seen shuttling to or from a deployment. I grew up a military brat and don't ever remember hearing it said to my father, who served during Vietnam and wore a uniform for 20 years. 

When Desert Storm began in the early 1990s, this phrase again became popular and then tapered off quite a bit in the public arena. I remember hearing it daily following 9/11 when it became a compliment the American public gave frequently. No doubt it was sincere from those who felt secure knowing the Armed Forces of the United States were "serving their country." 

But I admit to often feeling confused, or even suspect, in hearing those words from people I didn't know, especially when I had no idea why they felt like saying them to me. I always said thank you, and then went about my business never asking why, just accepting the compliment. 

That is, until I deployed to the Middle East, and was fortunate enough to visit Afghanistan on a few occasions. If you've ever read any history on this beautiful country, you know that Afghanistan has seen many foreign troops deployed there throughout the last few hundred years. Khaled Hosseini, author of the book "The Kite Runner," wrote an excellent book about this area entitled "A Thousand Splendid Suns." In it, he describes the view of ordinary Afghan women as they struggle with the Soviet Union's occupation and subsequent downfall only to find even worse struggles under Taliban rule. The book is a graphic tale, specifically focusing on the complete loss of freedom, status and even humane treatment for women trapped within the borders of the country; where fear is the common thread for a population often struggling to survive and happy to make a simple living. 

It was on the streets of Kabul that a simple shopkeeper said those words to me again. I was walking around a street bazaar looking for a gift, when I decided to stop in a jewelry store and look around. The owner of the store was in his early 20s, and I expected he'd be grateful that I intended to buy some loose stones from him. After I looked around for a few minutes, I decided I didn't want to buy anything after all and started heading for the door. It was right before I got outside the owner stopped me and said: ,"Thanks for being here." 

I was surprised by his comment, but kept walking outside thinking he was just being nice and wanted my business. The owner put his arm on my shoulder and repeated his comment: "thanks for being here." Being a bit confused, I apologized for not buying anything and realized that the two of us were not communicating well. Finally, the shopkeeper said:, "Thanks for being here ... in my country." 

I couldn't help but ask why this time ... why he felt that way, and then sat down for an hour-long discussion over tea. Essentially, he said thanks for letting his sister attend the university again, thanks for letting his mother walk unaccompanied to the store again, and thanks for letting his wife have the ability to work and make a living again. He was telling me "thanks for serving" and he meant it! It was then I realized the phrase means different things to different people, and that I had been judging the intentions of the person passing along the sentiment. 

In the 1930s, Dale Carnegie wrote a book entitled:, "How to Win Friends and Influence People," and one of his key principles for success was to give honest and sincere appreciation to others around you. I think that may be where I ran into trouble with the phrase "thanks for serving." 

I used to feel the person giving the compliment had no idea what I had ever done to serve them. But, I should have realized the beauty of this sentiment is in the act of giving honest and sincere appreciation to others because they truly are thankful for the men and women of the Armed Forces. 

I must admit, I've been thanked recently while wearing the uniform, and I have no doubt the person offering the kind words meant exactly what they said. Only this time, I graciously received the compliment and simply said:, "You're welcome ... it's an honor to serve!"