Five Simple Words
By Erin H. Leach-Ogden
"Thank you for your service."My response to that phrase ten years ago was dramatically different than it is now. When I first heard those words, I was a twenty-one year old newly commissioned lieutenant with a whole lot of idealism and not the least bit of understanding regarding war's realities. So I accepted the phrase with what I thought proper — a small nod, and a quiet, "Thank you," in return.
I remember thinking that I didn't really deserve thanks, since I hadn't done anything yet, but how would a stranger know that? And why would an introverted and overly courteous young woman voice that thought when the only possible outcome would be the discomfort of the person who had offered kind words to begin with? I continued with my "nod, thanks, and move on" response as a safe bet.
As soon as I finished flight school, I was shipped to Afghanistan. The two best words I can come up with to describe that place are breathtaking and brutal. I vividly remember my very first flight. Sitting in a complex, multi-million dollar helicopter and looking down on mud-brick huts and hand-tilled fields made me think, "If not for this machine, I'd believe that we've just been transported 2,000 years back in time."
Over the course of hundreds of flights, my brain registered images of epic mountains, lonely desert, and lush river valleys, but it balked at burned-out Russian tanks and women running for cover at the sound of our approach. I saw things that made me laugh, like a family of four riding a single motorbike, and things that seared my brain even as I tried to ignore them, like a row of Afghan men against a wall with black hoods over their heads. I had been one of the pilots who landed in their village in the dead of night and dropped off special forces who put every military age male in zip tie handcuffs and hoods before shoving them onto our aircraft to take back to the FOB for interrogation.
At the time, I questioned nothing, for the reasoning always went something like, "these could be the guys who keep shooting rockets at us while we're sleeping," or "I'm not taking any chances, that mortar hit so close to our aircraft that my bones are still shaking." One of the worst days of my life entailed flying to a crash site in order to pick up the burned remains of an aircrew. I never saw the bodies, never even got out of the aircraft. The infantrymen on site were responsible for the horrific task of filling body bags, and our crew chiefs then loaded them in the back. The pilot next to me said, "There's a smell you'll never forget."His words are what I can't get out of my head. The military dubbed those kind of flights Hero Missions.
That word, hero, never sounded the same to me after that. Neither did bagpipes, or the song, "Amazing Grace". Those things were a part of every ramp ceremony, and they now cause me irrational panic. For every American death over there, we were lined up on the tarmac in rigid formations, holding salutes until our arms shook as flag-draped coffins passed in front of our eyes and onto a plane headed for home. I wanted to be on the plane, just not in the box. When I did get home, I didn't respond anymore to "Thank you for your service." I simply said nothing. The phrase made me feel incredibly conflicted.
I originally went to Afghanistan believing in the mission, believing in the evil of terrorists and the just cause we were sent to fight for. I even defended the war when other Americans began to question it. But ultimately I left that country wondering if we were doing more harm than good. No one who risks their life for a cause wants to find out that it was for naught. I fought against that possibility long and hard. Eventually, I faced reality. I shed the uniform after completing my contract, and I've been pursuing answers ever since.
I have regrets about participating in violence for profit, but being honest about that means responding to "Thank you for your service"(and its corresponding mentality) with "Don't thank me, I was wrong." As of yet, I've never had the personal courage to say that. I find relief in the fact that people rarely say it to me anymore, since I don't wear a uniform, or a ball cap that proclaims my veteran status. You won't find a veteran status on my license plate, or an Army bumper sticker on my car. My identity is more than that. Some people might question my patriotism, but that would be incorrect. I simply choose to fight for peace now, rather than rush to war. I choose to respect the military by saying their lives should only be at risk as a very last, and very rare, resort. I choose to bring attention to a veteran suicide rate of 20 per day, and say that it shouldn't be a surprise to the general public. I choose to honor my family's long history of military service by working the rest of my life to prevent the next generation from ever seeing war, and from ever having to hear the phrase, "Thank you for your service."
Erin Leach was a Blackhawk pilot in the 82nd Airborne Combat Aviation Brigade in Afghanistan 2007-2008 and 2009-2010. She works at the William Joyner Center for the Study of War and Its Social Consequences at U Mass Boston.
See more responses to "Thank you for your service" at VVAW member Marc Levy's website Medic in the Green Time.com in the Post War section.