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What I really want on Veterans Day

People watch the Cherry Blossom Festival Veterans Day Parade on Nov. 6, in Macon, Georgia. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
People watch the Cherry Blossom Festival Veterans Day Parade on Nov. 6, in Macon, Georgia. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

“Thank you for your service. Please enjoy three chicken tenders.”

Tempting as it sounds, this wasn’t why I signed up all those years ago. American institutions like to thank veterans for their service, and to borrow a phrase from the mockumentary "This is Spinal Tap," the gratitude dial “goes to 11” as Veterans Day approaches. Some “thank-yous” are rather nice, some are painfully awkward and some are downright weird. As a Navy veteran with more than a little business experience, I have some consumer feedback about what veterans want. Spoiler alert: It’s not three free chicken tenders.

Nevertheless, “Wings and Rings,” a chain restaurant based in Cincinnati, is offering that on this Veterans Day. I can’t imagine the corporate brainstorming session that came up with this gem. Applebees knows what’s what: Their Veterans Day menu features a complimentary chicken tender platter that includes coleslaw and fries. They understand that freedom isn’t free.

Meanwhile, 7-Eleven is giving away a free Big Gulp. Starbucks has free coffee and is “proud to expand their offer” this year by adding iced coffee! Because nothing says “thank you for your service” like free frozen water in your drink.

At least food and drink can be enjoyed with relative anonymity, unlike the recognition at events where veterans are asked to stand and be applauded. This is always super awkward for me, and I feel a little guilty when people clap.

What do we actually want? It’s complicated.

It’s viscerally hard to accept gratitude for taking baby steps when you’ve seen your colleague leap fearlessly into the abyss.

The thing is, while we’re proud of our service, every veteran has a buddy who sacrificed more. It’s viscerally hard to accept gratitude for taking baby steps when you’ve seen your colleague leap fearlessly into the abyss. To me, applause is a ridiculously superficial response to what other veterans have given -- the ultimate sacrifice -- yet way too grand for anything I did (four years of active duty at sea in exchange for free college). We all took the same oath to die for each other, but then Fate spins her roulette wheel, and you get what you get. I got lucky. I served on ships where I slept on a mattress and ate hot meals. One of my friends became a Navy SEAL and spent months camping in the frigid mountains of Afghanistan without a shower. Why should anyone thank me?

I admit to having moments (waking up for the umpteenth time mid-watch, feeling like the walking dead, living with less privacy than a prison inmate) when I desired nothing more than sweet release from my commitment. I wasn’t always 100% glad to be there. As we say in the fleet, “Navy” stands for Never Again Volunteer Yourself. So do I deserve an ovation? Probably not.

I guess what I really want -- but can no longer have -- is more time with my shipmates, reminiscing and laughing together.

Still, as veteran perks go, an “A for Effort” goes to a hidden gem in the Detroit Metro Airport called The Freedom Center. This dimly lit hole-in-the-wall for military travelers (including veterans and retirees) is like the Delta Crown Room without the fancy furniture, fancy people or fancy food. It is all steak and no sizzle. Not that there is actual steak (see: Delta Crown Room), but there are vinyl recliners with plenty of charging stations and a TV. It’s a place where veterans can do what we do best: sleep like the dead anywhere and for micro-snippets of time, no matter how brief. 

I like hanging out there because I can. Being with other veterans, lounging on furniture as worn and tired as our bodies, makes me feel appreciated and at home. I guess what I really want — but can no longer have — is more time with my shipmates, reminiscing and laughing together. My favorite thing about Veterans Day is seeing so many of them active on social media, sharing pictures and greetings and marveling at how young we were, back then.

Maybe I’m not alone in that, and anyway, who am I to say how anyone else wants to be thanked? Perhaps there’s a veteran out there who is really excited about that iced coffee. Here’s the good news: We don’t serve for the thanks. We serve for each other. And for the country.

But if anyone wants to meet up for a meal, I know a place with chicken tenders.

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Laura McTaggart Cognoscenti contributor
Laura McTaggart is a U.S. Navy veteran and a management consultant specializing in nonprofits.

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