I remember the first time I was thanked by a stranger for my military service. It was February 2006, and I was on the way home for mid-tour leave with a planeload of other troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Our plane stopped in Bangor, Maine, like thousands of similar flights before and after ours. One by one, garbed in dusty camouflage, we walked into the terminal.

I was expecting an empty airport, but instead we were met by a platoon of older volunteers decked out in red-white-and-blue, welcoming us home with cookies and cellphones so we could call our families and let them know we were back stateside. One by one, the volunteers thanked us, shaking our hands or hugging us.

The display of patriotism and gratitude surprised me, and I wasn’t sure how to respond. Just a few days before, I had been living with my team in squalor on a small compound in downtown Baqubah. Now, I was in a comfortable suburban airport, being handed treats by somebody’s grandparents and treated like a returning hero. I couldn’t understand why they were thanking me, with only half my tour done and a great deal of work left in Iraq before we could rightfully claim success. I stuffed those feelings away, though, muttered something to myself about focusing on the vacation ahead and quickly found a corner of the airport where I could wait with other soldiers for our flight to resume its journey to Dallas, where we’d all catch connecting flights home.

Several months later, my team and I came home from Iraq for good. Once again, the thank yous began, except this time they hit me differently. The first came from a general who spoke to our welcome-home ceremony at the airfield at Fort Campbell, Ky. I heard him offer several platitudes — thanking us, calling us “heroes” — that seemed like the sort of thing a general is expected to say at such a moment, but they also felt disconnected from the state of the war. The “hero” label, in particular, didn’t feel right to me. Most of us did nothing heroic in Iraq; we merely volunteered to serve and went to war, in the same way that a firefighter volunteers for work and then runs into a burning building. We came home just before Gen. David Petraeus took over and the troop surge began, at a time when thousands of Iraqis were dying each month in a hellish civil war. If we were really heroes, why was the war in Iraq going so badly?

I struggled to reconcile the general’s gratitude with my mixed feelings about Iraq, and how our efforts had done little to stop the violence there, and I came up empty.

Two weeks after redeploying from Iraq, I returned home to Los Angeles. There, “thank you” was less frequent. My family and friends welcomed me with more intimate questions based on the stream of e-mails I had sent from the war. They asked what had happened to the interpreter I’d befriended, or what came of the program we developed to issue blue-painted Humvees (we called them “Smurfvees”) to the Iraqi police, or whether traffic was worse in Baghdad or Los Angeles (hands down: Baghdad). Other veterans, recognizing the Army patch on my baseball cap, or the tan Under Armour gym shirt I wore everywhere, sometimes said hello and asked where I had been and how I was doing. But with few veterans around me in L.A., those inquiries were rare.

Strangers, however, mostly said nothing. Perhaps they lacked any connection to the war or had nothing to say, even if they recognized me as a veteran. Which was fine, because I didn’t have much to say to them. In my first few months home, I felt alienated from the civilians around me. I resented the way everyone continued their lives, as if there were no war at all. I couldn’t understand how the nation that sent me to Iraq could care so little about the war. I withdrew, spending time only with close friends — usually other veterans — and even pushing away family because I felt I had few things in common with them. I spent entire days doing little but walking on the beach with my dog, wearing sunglasses and listening to an iPod, so I could be alone with my thoughts.

I even resented the strangers who thanked me; I suspected that they were just trying to ease their guilt for not serving. Instead of thanking me, I wanted them to do something tangible for their country, to make some sacrifice greater than the amount of lung effort necessary to utter a few words. I also wanted them to do more to understand what was happening in the war — Pick up a newspaper! Get involved with a local veterans group! Visit a recruiting office and enlist! — so they could really comprehend what they were thanking us for.

Perhaps my reaction was irrational. Fewer than 1 percent of Americans serve today in uniform. We neither need nor want nor can afford a massive military made up of draftees from every part of American society. For the wars we are in — and the likely future wars of the 21st century — we will need something like the all-volunteer, professional force we have today. And yet, absent conscription, we will probably never bridge the civilian-military divide that has grown during the four decades of the all-volunteer force. It simply isn’t realistic to expect every American to have a personal connection to the military, even in wartime. Intellectually, I’ve realized the futility of resenting people for going on with their lives while my comrades and I fought for them in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Emotionally, too, I’ve made some peace with the demons I brought home from Iraq. I became comfortable talking with people about the war and started writing about it as well, to gain some perspective on this experience. I talked with counselors at the VA hospital in Los Angeles; they helped me learn to live with my combat experience and translate it to the civilian world. My friends reached out and pulled me back into their lives, even if I didn’t always want to be social. I eventually learned to talk with them about the war and listen to them about their feelings toward veterans — and why they felt compelled to thank us.

Through these conversations, I began to understand the sincerity underlying most gestures of gratitude toward the troops. I also began to empathize with those who had no personal connection to the military, but who still wanted to say something or do something to support those who served on their behalf. There is genuine respect behind those thank yous, and after a while, I came to accept that.

I also believe that this collective gratitude may serve a deeper purpose. Whether civilians fully realize it or not, the simple message of thanks sends a powerful message to veterans — that the nation will take responsibility for our actions in her service. In some small way, this collective acceptance of responsibility helps veterans to transfer some of the psychological burdens of wartime service to society. Such gratitude will not eradicate combat stress nor address every veteran’s experience. However, these small gestures do make a difference.

Despite my initial misgivings, I’ve come to see “thank you for your service” as the right greeting to use for returning veterans. It is neither too intimate, nor too invasive, nor too distant, and it correctly captures the sentiment of a grateful nation for those who serve in harm’s way. Saying thank you avoids the much more pernicious questions that every combat veteran hates, questions such as “What was it like?” or “Did you kill anyone?” Simple statements of gratitude also avoid labeling veterans as heroes or victims, two moral judgments that can be made only on an individual basis, if at all.

I now live in Arlington, Va., one of the densest military communities in the nation. Although I frequently see active military personnel and veterans in the neighborhood, I rarely stop anyone to say hello, much less say thank you, in part because I remember how reluctant I was to accept those thanks when I came home. I should do so more often, though, lest the sentiment be offered so rarely that it is forgotten.

Phillip Carter, an Iraq war veteran, is a founding member of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee policy. He is now the chief operating officer for Caerus Associates, a strategy and design consulting firm.

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Iraq war veteran Phillip Carter on coming to accept
a nation’s gratitude