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For many veterans, 'thank you' prompts complex feelings




Two women hold up signs thanking the troops as members of the US military veterans' Rolling Thunder bikers group ride past in Washington on May 26, 2013 as the country marks Memorial Day.
Two women hold up signs thanking the troops as members of the US military veterans' Rolling Thunder bikers group ride past in Washington on May 26, 2013 as the country marks Memorial Day.
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

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For many people, saying thank you to a military veteran is automatic: a way to show gratitude, to express thanks for tremendous sacrifice.

But the comments from civilians can leave some service members feeling uncomfortable or at a loss for words, especially for those returning from the battlefield.

"They don't really understand what it's like over there, they don't know," said James Yaccino, a combat veteran and former Marine who now lives in Huntington Beach. "And so the thank you seems kind of empty."

Yaccino said he was driven to sign-up for service by a long military tradition in his family, in which both his father and grandfather served.

"I heard the bugle, I heard the call, and decided to go and enlist," he said. But that sense of duty – and the strain and trauma that can come from war experience – is difficult to capture and explain in a brief interaction with a stranger.

"I had to come up with a way to deal with that, with my level of discomfort," said Yaccino.

The issue first came to our attention through an article in the New York Times by reporter Matt Richtel. He described a Green Beret named Michael Freedman who calls it the "thank you for your service phenomenon."

We thought we'd reach out to veterans in Southern California to hear their take on it. The responses, just like the veteran community itself, were diverse.

"People join up for a lot of different reasons, but most people don't join up with the idea that when they return home, they're going to be thanked," said David Barr, who was deployed to Iraq as an Army Officer from 2005 to 2006 and now works as a counselor at the South Orange County Vet Center.

"While the sentiment is appreciated, the thanks itself is very personal and it leaves a lot of questions," he said.

Others say the gratitude marks a progression in how veterans have been treated coming back from wars.

"I wasn't looking for that when I joined the military, but it's nice," said Amy Montano, a resident of Thousand Oaks, who served in the Army in the late 1990s. "I grew up hearing that people did not appreciate Vietnam veterans, so it's quite a shift. I'm OK with it."

Former Marine James Yaccino has one solution: he's printed business cards that he hands out to well-wishers. The cards urge people to get involved with the Wounded Warrior Project, a group that helps veterans and their families transition to civilian life.

"I've done my part, now it's time for you to do your part," he said. "This would be a good way to start."

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