I never, ever, ever know how to react to that, for many reasons. My first instinct is to say "Well, how about you write your congressman and demand that enlisted service members get paid a decent wage so that they don't issue us WIC vouchers when we are about to have a kid?" or "How about you stop electing insecure assholes using us to make up for avoiding their turn?"
But mostly, it's because, well, I didn't join for you. I didn't join for my country. I joined, because it was either that, or spending my life as an alcoholic manager for a BK. Or something.
in 1986, I was kicked out of FIU for being a terminal fuckup. I couldn't keep a 1.5 average. I was too busy drinking, partying, and in general being a fuckup. But when you're holding the notice that says "You're an idiot" in your hands, and that you won't have a future, you have to do something. And I did. I walked downstairs, to the payphone, called up the recruiter and said "I want to join the Air Force".
I must have been a dream candidate. Firewalled ASVAB scores, about 6-7 years in the Civil Air Patrol, so I was familiar with the basics. No talking me into it. Just show me the jobs. It came down to two...Electronic Countermeasures, (ECM) Tech, or Explosive Ordinance Disposal, (EOD) Tech. I went with ECM, because it got me into basic a month sooner. That was it.
I went through a lot between 31 October 1986 and 3 April 1993. Most of who I am today comes from that. I was in a B-1B unit in North Dakota, (319th OMS, later the 46th BS) for almost all of it. I was in for Persian Gulf 1, (the one run by experts, that we didn't fuck up from day one) and I was on duty the day SAC came off of nuclear alert. That last one is far more significant, by the way.
But when people I don't know thank me, I just don't know what to do. I didn't join for noble reasons. I joined because I was a fucking idiot, and that was my last, best chance to fix it. I joined because I didn't have a safety net that wasn't a bottle and a cardboard box under a bridge. I joined, because it was all that was left for me to do.
If you're grateful that I did serve, regardless of reason, thank you for that gratitude, but please, it would mean more to me if you wrote your congressman and asked them to spend more on the people who don't make it back into the civilian world as whole as they left it. The pay rates are still appalling, as are the benefits. Both parties are to blame...I got shitty pay raises my entire career, and that was mostly under a republican president. I watched Republicans and Democrats alike gut our benefits to fund other shit. Make them see that the military shouldn't view a shitty salary as "part of the sacrifice". We put our lives in harm's way, even when the reason's stupid. We shouldn't be cheapskated too.
But when you say thank you, and I look a little confused, well, it's because sometimes, I don't know why you're saying that, or if I'm the guy you think I am.