I recently stopped at a popular taco place for lunch. The counter person took my order. Noticing my Vietnam Veteran cap, she asked if I was a veteran.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Well, you get a discount,” and she rang it up.
“Actually,” I replied, “I’m a disabled vet.”
(I immediately sensed that I should not have said that there at the counter of Taco Bell, or anywhere else. But it’s no secret; it’s on my state-issued license plate.)
“You were injured during the war?”
“Yes,” I said, as I reached for the drink cup she held out to me. (Still reeling a bit from the little scene I felt I had created, I was glad she didn’t ask for an explanation. I just wanted to get my food and move on.)
“Thank you for your service.”
I acknowledged her kindness and walked over to the soft drink dispenser. As I was filling my cup, I felt a gentle hand on my waist.
“I just wanted to thank you for your service, also,” said another customer that had overhead the other conversation. I thanked her and watched her walk back to her meal across the room.
As much as these gestures are appreciated, they are still emotionally overwhelming for me. They really are.
I was discharged from the service in 1970, a time when anything and anyone associated with the fighting in Vietnam was criticized, ridiculed, and sometimes spat upon. Our discharge “lecture” was quite to the point: “Get yourself home as quickly as possible, remove your uniform and never wear it again. And never, but never, talk about your military service.”
Sentiments have changed over the years. Vietnam veterans in their 60s, 70s, and 80s are being recognized and appreciated for their faithfulness in circumstances they did not create.
But I’m very clear on the fact that the newfound “Thank you for your service” respect is mostly deserving to those that did not return home.