The other day, I was just getting off of work when we decided to go out. It was a "screw it" night, as M___ and I like to call them. Since it was a screw it night, I didn't even bother going home and changing, therefore, I was still in uniform. When we do screw it nights, we don't usually go to the IHOP or the grill down the street. We go to the nicest restaurant we can afford at the time. I know, right? Screw it. Anyways, we rarely get out of this place, just the two of us, under 65 bucks, so, with the horde with us, we were looking at $80 or so. The waitress, who we really like, and whose table we always try to get, came up to us just after our food was being delivered. She told us that our dinner had been paid for. What can you do? The reg says we shouldn't take money from people, it says nothing about if they don't really give us a choice. You can't really just say "No thank you," and insult people. I could have avoided the whole thing by just changing my clothes, but it was a screw it night, and I'm lazy. Also, should I act ashamed to be seen in uniform? When this kind of thing happens, I try to follow the advice of a friend that has since retired: "Smile, say thank you, mind your manners, and try to help someone else down the road." So that's what we did. Throughout the meal, she would come up, more and more emotional every time, with more and more offers to buy us dinner and/or drinks. By the time we left, both her and M___ were in tears. We made sure to give the waitress a largeish tip (we weren't paying for our food, after all), but that was all we could do, as the people wanted to remain anonymous.
Here's the thing, though, this isn't the first time this has happened to us. It doesn't happen all the time, and we don't go looking for it, and are usually completely surprised when it does, and very grateful. But I still get a feeling of "what the heck," and I'll explain why.
39 years ago, my dad was a serviceman, traveling in uniform (as per regulation at the time), just off the plane from Vietnam. I'm not sure of what he needed from the lady at a kiosk window, but she slammed the window in his face. When he complained, he was told rather bluntly to take a hint and move on. This was actually a mild reaction towards servicemen at the time. Members were spit on, cursed at, treated rudely, and generally had a hell of a time, just trying to get around the country that they had sworn and risked their lives to protect the freedoms of. Some were actually out and out physically attacked. It got to the point that the Army actually changed its regs, to really read almost the exact opposite. Service members were not only encouraged to not be in uniform if they could avoid it, but were, many times, out and out ordered not to be. I recall hearing of certain, kindly USO ladies that would keep a closet set aside full of donated clothes to protect the servicemen without any civilian clothes. Ostensibly, this rule came about to protect service members from terrorism, but the writing was on the wall: it was to protect them from the people they supposedly served.
According to friends in the Army, not much changed over the next 30 years or so. Well, let's fast forward 30 years. People started flying flags, attending parades, standing at the national anthem, greeting Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines with dignity and respect, shaking their hands, and buying them meals. So I wonder what happened in the last 40 years or so? Why the change of heart? 20 years before that, it was like now. People loved seeing service members and talking to them, giving them lifts from the bus stop, etc. And then the big change. The 60's. The age of *full sarcasm voice* "enlightenment." And then there's now. The only real event I see is September 11. But why should that make a difference? What if, in 1961, Nguyễn Hữu Xuyến or Trần Văn Trà (early leaders of the Viet Cong, largely based in North Vietnam) had ordered a plane to fly into the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty (the WTC wasn't around at the time)(I assure you, we were high on their target list even then), would my dad's generation of service members had faced so much crap? Would the conflict in Vietnam have gone like it did? Probably not. So then, where would be now?
This brings about another question, though, too. What's it going to be like in 20 years, for my son and daughters, if they decide to join the military? Here's a little time line. Lots of patriotism after the Revolutionary War, and they didn't have much time to lose it by the war of 1812. By the outset of the Civil War, almost 50 years had gone by and people had begun to forget about their Soldiers. Good thing there was a long draw up to the Civil War, or their wouldn't have been the support in place that we did end up having. By the turn of the century, most of that patriotism was forgotten. Then there was the "long" war in Europe, finally involving us, and the people loved the military again. By 1939, that was again being forgotten. Soldiers on leave were seen as a pariah. Patriotism started building back up slowly as we supported our allies in the Europe and the Pacific, but it was ramped up a thousand fold at the attack of Pearl Harbor. Then, after the war, support waned, falling off drastically in the 60's and 70's. Not even such things as Grenada, Panama, and Desert Storm really ramped it. Then 2001, and we're right back to people thinking kindly about Soldiers.
What is it with the American people that they take for granted their freedoms and those protecting them unless there's a threat of a major conflict or a direct attack on our soil? Why does it take a major event like that help people remember? Why, when people seem to be most enjoying the peace that we and those like us have fought and died to pay for, do people forget what it is we do/did? We don't ask for much, really. You don't have to buy us dinner, although that is appreciated. Just stand for the flag and the anthem, a quiet thank you, a prayer, a handshake. And try not to forget us. Enjoy your freedoms we pay for. That's why we do it. But please, as you have the freedom to sit and ignore the snarls of the beasts at the door, please don't forget that there are those of us out there, every day, shoving our bodies and our lives into those maws that would devour you. And in return, all we will be able to do is say, "Thank You," and carry on for another day.