I fought in Afghanistan. When people learn of my military service, I get a variety of comments — none more common than "Thank you for your service."
My response sometimes surprises people. I look them in the eye and say, "You're welcome."
For years, I struggled to find the appropriate response. I felt uncomfortable when thanked because I didn't know what to say. My friend and mentor Eric Greitens, who founded the Mission Continues, experienced similar feelings. He suggested that I simply reply the way my mother taught me.
When I began to respond with "You're welcome," I was concerned that it shocked people. I wondered if I was being too flippant or prideful.
Then I realized that their reaction said something about what "Thank you for your service" now means in American culture.
The phrase has become a reflex for civilians who don't know what else to say. Most people today play a minimal role in national defense beyond expressing gratitude to those who have served on their behalf.
Many civilians may genuinely wish to have played a larger role in America's recent conflicts - if only from the home front. In lieu of participation, they offer thanks. Society has normalized this practice, with the result that some Americans consider uttering thanks to be a fulfillment of their patriotic duties.
This helps explain the surprise many people show when I say "You're welcome." All I mean is that I am proud to have fought for my country. But often the thank you means more to the person offering it than to the person being thanked.
When I sat on a panel in front of 75 Tillman Military Scholars - some of our best and brightest post-9/11 veterans — in July, I asked the audience who felt uncomfortable when thanked for their service. Almost every hand went up.