“Calling all passengers with children and all defence members and military veterans, you may board now,” announced the heavily made-up, twenty-something, bottle-blonde flight attendant, “and thank you for your service,” she chimed. Welcome to travelling in Australia.
On Sunday Virgin Australia announced that henceforth all ADF personnel and self-declared military veterans would have priority boarding and an announcement to be made before take-off.
The phrase “thank you for your service” is deeply ingrained within American culture, where public displays of appreciation are commonplace and accepted. It’s not uncommon even for American passengers to applaud when the pilot lands the aircraft. They love to heap praise. And more power to them, for that is their culture. But it isn’t ours.
We have other ways to show appreciation, while still allowing for the modesty and anonymity of veterans to be preserved. For over a century we have gathered twice a year in sombre mourning, reflection, and appreciation for the sacrifices made by Australians who served in various wars and conflicts (sometimes involuntarily). We have taught our children about the wars and the political situations that led to and shaped those wars.
But what this looks like is a cheesy maladaptation of an American tradition, only completely out of its original context. The phrase has been used a lot online, often in Facebook discussions, the context being an argument where one party asserts that the other has no idea about deployed service and the other cites their own military service. Thick and fast comes the back-handed riposte — “thank you for your service” — with all the sincerity of Lisa and Sarah’s exchange in the classic film known to most young veterans “Team America”, with each declaring “I treasure your friendship.”
Along with the recent tendency to commodify ANZAC Day and for some vainglorious politicians to leech off the deeds of veterans (sometimes even marching in the parade main body alongside veterans), this measure has potential to trivialise the serious business of defending our nation and the values that hold it together.
Most of us who deployed are neither heroes nor wounded. Nor do most suffer PTSD.
At best, this sort of thing seeks to make one or the other of us at the discretion of a flight attendant on a microphone. At worst, it represents infantilisation of veterans with the “all must win prizes” mindset that has infected our primary schools. If we are all heroes, then the individual heroism of actual heroes is diminished – and no one is a hero.
For the last few years, it has been recognised that suicide rates of veterans are higher than cohorts within defence and other matched controls. The remarkable work by the Duke of Sussex in shedding light on the plight of those physically and emotionally/mentally wounded using sport in the Invictus Games has been a huge step forward to bringing concrete help to people who pay an extraordinary price to keep us safe.
But blanket announcements like this risk reducing the suffering and need for care of those who do suffer from it to a marketing slogan.
The response from veterans has possibly not been what Virgin might have expected. To quote one: “I have seen many veterans commenting on other posts of this and they like me are not interested. I board last.”
Dr Michael Ayling is a specialist anaesthetist in New South Wales and a veteran of East Timor, The Middle East, Afghanistan and the Aceh tsunami.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.