Ask the Expert, Brian Klassen, PhD: How Do I Respond to "Thank You for Your Service"?

Whether they genuinely mean it or not, I don’t know how to respond when people say, “Thank you for your service,” Sometimes I want to cry, other times I want to shout in their face—you have no idea what I have gone through! My girlfriend thinks I’m crazy. Why do I feel this way? Dr. Klassen answers your questions about mental health treatment.

Brian Klassen, PhD, is the Clinical Director of the Road Home Program, part of the Wounded Warrior Project's Warrior Care Network.

For information about treatments for PTSD please visit The Treatment Hub.

Hi, I’m Dr. Klassen, I’m a clinical psychologist, and here’s our question: “I don't know what to do when someone says, “thank you for your service.” Sometimes I want to cry, other times I want to shout in that person’s face. You have no idea. “Thank you” are some ridiculous words for something you know nothing about. My girlfriend says that I’m acting crazy and maybe I am. Why do I feel this way?”

Thank you for the question. I think it’s very important. And for somebody who has worked with veterans for years now, I don't know that I’ve met a veteran that hasn’t had this experience. And so, the first thing I want to say is, I think what you’re experiencing is quite normal. You’re certainly not alone. I think many, many other veterans feel the way you feel, and, also, you’re certainly not crazy.

I do think, though, that the experiences you’re describing, the really kind of provocative anger, the sort of sadness, are clues that there is maybe something going on that might benefit from further processing or finding someone to talk to, whether it’s a peer, trusted member of your faith community, your neighborhood or a therapist.

And I always like to think that strong emotions are a clue that something’s going on, right? And I think those words “thank you for your service,” can kind of provoke very kind of deep and provocative memories about traumas, about stressful experiences that you encountered while you were serving, such as like the loss of close friends, kind of being away from friends and family for a long time.

Just the uncertainty of deployments, not knowing whether you’ll live or die. I could go on - there’s just many intense experiences that maybe those words bring up for you. I think the other layer to this question is that those words, “thank you for your service,” I think when said tritely or said in sort of a superficial way I think may provoke some very deep and painful emotions in a lot of service members because of the growing military and civilian divide.

And I think the fact is that many civilians are completely ignorant or have no idea of what military service is like and the kind of traumas and sacrifices that many of our service members have experienced. And so, I think that’s another reason why I say, that I think what you’re going through when people have tritely, superficially say “thank you for your service,” is kind of normal and understandable.

I do think it would be helpful to seek out somebody to talk to about this, whether it’s another veteran, like a peer support specialist, member of your clergy, someone you trust, it could even be a therapist, just to kind of help get at what’s driving the intense reaction that you’re having.

Longer term, try and seek out organizations like Team Red, White and Blue or The Mission Continues that really try to encourage sort of veteran military populations volunteering for service alongside civilian counterparts to try to build bridges and kind of create new understandings between veterans and their civilian counterparts. Thank you for the question.

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Posted on BrainLine October 12, 2021. Reviewed October 12, 2021.

About the author: Brian Klassen, PhD

Brian Klassen, Ph.D., is the Clinical Director for The Road Home Program: The National Center of Excellence for Veterans and Their Families at Rush University in Chicago, Illinois. Brian spent his formative years training at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center, completing rotations in chronic pain management, residential substance use disorder treatment, and PTSD. Brian has special expertise in providing front-line treatments for PTSD, including Prolonged Exposure and Cognitive Processing Therapy.

Headshot of Dr. Brian Klassen