No. Thank YOU.

By David Small

Most of us have experienced people thanking us for our service. Such gestures always make me uncomfortable. Of course, I appreciate such vocal support of our profession of arms, but somehow the traditional response of “You’re welcome” doesn’t cut it in these situations.

I’m a reservist who lives in the Washington D.C. metro area. You can’t swing a dead cat on the metro without hitting somebody in uniform during morning commutes. But my unit of assignment is in New York City (My apologies to those of you serving in East Jesus, Kansassippi).

Manhattan is a rare place. While the city is steeped in military history, there really isn’t much of a military presence there today. The Navy certainly knows the city well with Fleet Week, an event so ingrained in the city’s culture that it was a topic for an episode of Sex and the City. Subway folks even let anybody with a military ID ride free (even though the practice is only authorized during Fleet Week). And, of course, the city is directly tied to our current overseas contingencies, having been the target of the attacks that initiated such conflict.

But the tiny Staten Island Coast Guard Station, a recruiting booth in Times Square, and a small Army Fort in another borough don’t exactly expose the city that never sleeps to folks in uniform. That’s part of why my small public affairs office exists there.

So, when I am pulling duty in NYC and I walk from the subway to my office on my commute, I get absolutely countless gestures of thanks for my service. You’d never see this in D.C. When I venture to Ess-a Bagel around the corner for breakfast or to P.J. Clarke’s for lunch, I’ve often been the recipient of a kind stranger’s generosity. I think because of the unique nature of the city and the genuine, patriotic people who live there—seeing one guy in Air Force blue is such a rare occurrence that I hear these “thank you’s” much more than anywhere else I’ve ever served in uniform.

It took me a while, but after a couple of years in this post, I developed what I think is a brilliant response to an unsolicited “thank you” for my service. First, I stop walking. In the past, I’d keep going and give an awkward head-nod in return. But now I stop. New Yorkers don’t stop. They barely acknowledge a cab running an intersection let alone another person on the street. But here is somebody who has actually gestured to me and I stop.

And then I respond to them, “No. Thank YOU.” The message is implicit. I thank them for their support of the military. Without public support, we wouldn’t have our military. We wouldn’t be able to do the things we do to protect freedom and the American way. Often this results in a conversation and a chance to educate them on who I am and what I do in the Air Force.

Perhaps sharing my own response will ease the awkwardness for you the next time you’re walking through the airport in uniform and somebody thanks you.

About David Small

David Small, editor of OutServe Magazine’s blog, is a Major in the Air Force Reserve, stationed in New York, N.Y. Small’s perspective speaks to the everyday service member who may be working side by side with an LGBT coworker.

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  1. Scuddly
    February 11, 2012 at 11:52 AM

    Great Piece, Dave. I’ve been startled by some people offering their hands and praise.
    Usually say “Wow, that’s so sweet.” I’ll try your approach next…see how it fits =]

  2. Jacob Flippin
    February 9, 2012 at 4:00 PM

    I cannot count how many times I have been told this by civilians and military personnel alike. I am always left with an awkward feeling like, “How am I actually keeping us free?” Granted I just play a small role in the machine that is the military, we are all responsible in some way for the freedom that we enjoy as Americans. Unfortunately, at least so far, not all Americans seem to be created equal, but thats for another blog.

  3. daniel
    February 8, 2012 at 9:38 PM

    to me, the implication sometimes seems like i am being thanked by them for doing something that noone else wants to do or something that is scary or hard or i dont know…extremely unpleasant and a burden and i felt like ‘well if someone has to do it, it will be me”…when in fact i love being in the Navy! i love being a corpsman..i like my lifestyle. i like the person i have become. i feel good when i put on my uniform. i know thats not the common experience and i know that people are doing it for their families and so their kids have a better life than they did and as a result miss out on alot of things. i know that people go in harms way on the daily (myself included) but its always seemed like a conscience choice i made and was lucky enough to be accepted and smart enough to get even more out of the Navy then they have gotten out of me…but for me personally, when someone says thank you its sort of like them walking up to me and being like ‘hey buddy let me put some sprinkles on your ice cream”…so i always reply..’no, thank YOU’ cuz i mean it.

  4. David
    February 7, 2012 at 4:20 PM

    John… Thanks for that feedback. I had no idea the CG had such a large presence there! But while large for the Coast Guard, 600 folks is still not huge in the grand scheme of a military presence in NYC. I didn’t mean to belittle my Coastie friends, so please don’t take offense. None was intended.

    • John Hecker
      February 7, 2012 at 4:26 PM

      Of course. None taken. I realized after I pressed “Post” that we are a small service and 600 to our DoD sister services is small potatoes, but HUGE for us. We doo good stuff up there in NYC. I just wish we still had the base on Governors Island. I cost a fortune (for us) to maintain, but what a grand place. And it had a Super-8 that we could stay in for something like $79/night.

      • John Hecker
        February 7, 2012 at 4:29 PM

        And – I really have to watch my spelling more closely. Sorry.

  5. John Hecker
    February 7, 2012 at 4:07 PM

    Great article – but I really must point out that the Coast Guard has more than just a “tiny Staten Island Coast Guard station”. My goodness, we have a huge presence on Staten Island. Our Sector has 607 military folks (76 officers, 25 warrant officers and 506 enlisted), not to mention the 308 reserves who drill there. We also have a Maritime Safety and Security Team (MSST) on Staten Island that has 6 officers, 2 warrants and 65 enlisted. Please we have a smattering of others in and around Manhattan. The Coast Guard Sector is headed by a full Captain (O-6) and is currently filled by a rear admiral (although she’s leaving this coming summer to a new assignment).

  6. Gregg Hierholzer
    February 7, 2012 at 12:02 PM

    I encounter this on a regular basis as well, i just tell them almost the same thing, I say “No thank you for your support” as there are a lot of folks who don’t support what we do.

  7. Carlee Thrash
    February 7, 2012 at 3:52 AM

    About a year and a half ago I start replying with “thank you for supporting us”

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