If Your Idea of America Doesn't Include Everyone, Don't Bother Thanking Me For My Service | Opinion

If you're an American, and whether you've had the distinct honor to serve in uniform or not, it's likely you've heard that phrase, "thank you for your service." Of course, if you're on the receiving end like myself, and the less then 8 percent of living Americans who've served in uniform, it's usually a pretty good feeling! Who doesn't like be thanked?

And lucky for me, the "thank you for your service" doesn't just stop at individual people. I feel like sort of what you call a semi-superstar—it's all over the place. Businesses, various other institutions, politicians, media, you take your pick—"thank you for your service" is "the thing." Just google "free meals on veterans day" this week and you'll find dozens of restaurants offering veterans free meals as long as you have your military ID to prove it. Who doesn't love that!

But as I reflect on the rapidly deteriorating and divisive state of our nation, and the continued hate-infused rhetoric towards those who follow a faith like mine, perhaps don't look a certain way—or, say, the latest swipe towards a decorated war veteran, LtCol Alexander Vindman with over 20 years of honorable service to this Nation and a Purple Heart, smeared because he happened to be born in the Ukraine—I really can't help but question the genuineness of the whole "thank you for your service." Is it all just a bunch of talk? Something to say because it just sounds nice?

It really got me thinking. What does it actually mean to my fellow Americans when they thank me for my service? Some Americans don't even see me as American enough, let alone validate my military service, because of the way I look and the Islamic faith I keep near and dear to my heart.

Just this 21st century alone, thousands of US military servicemen and women from all walks of life, religious traditions, backgrounds have died; and tens of thousands have come back wounded. And this barely takes into account the lives of their family members, husbands, wives, children, mothers and fathers. And lets not forget PTSD, and death by suicide later because a service-member just wasn't able to cope with the aftermaths of senseless wars. Ever-expanding circles of lives ruined. Self-identified Muslim service-members who loved this nation as much as any one else are in these circles too.

According to Pew Research Center analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Defense, we are living in a time when we have one of the smallest active duty forces since 2001 all the while when alarm bells are going off raising concerns for the military as its unable to recruit at the levels needed to have a robust force in place. But what many Americans may not realize is the racially and ethnically diverse military of today. Approximately 40 percent of the active-duty military is made up of racial and ethnic minority groups. It's a sobering thought: just who is protecting us, even as we are immersed in increasingly nationalistic ideology by some and the constant promotion of anti-immigration policies by others.

With the military already struggling to meet recruitment goals, President Donald Trump as the Commander-in-Chief and his broad-brush analogies singling out and labeling various ethnicities and faiths doesn't help. I know because, as a Pakistani born, tan skinned-guy, Muslim American US Marine Veteran, I'm personally affected by the rhetoric. In fact, I get random emails from people across the country till this very day asking me for advice if they should join or not out of fear of the way they may be treated. And by the way, Muslims fought as far back in the armies of George Washington. Food for thought.

We as Americans really need to come to grips with who we are and our history regardless of which side of the argument you stand. We are who we are, perhaps particularly as a superpower, because of the immigrants who have bled, served and died protecting this Nation.

We are who we are because of the impeccable diversity where brilliant minds came together to solve some of the world's greatest problems under one union. And we are who we are because we valued inclusion, that regardless of where you came from or what you looked like or the faith that you held dear to your heart, the feeling of belonging gave an individual like me and many others the motivation to do the best that we could for our America. And we still do today even though we are often made to feel as the "other."

When I and many others who swore to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, we did it in the spirit of that famous phrase that encompasses the essence of the foundation of our Nation,"we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

This Veterans Day, all I'm asking fellow Americans to do is a little more self-reflection before they utter those somewhat sacred words, "thank you for your service." Sure, I'll accept my superstar-stardom status, even take up on those free meals, but if your "thank you for your service" is only inclusive of some and not all Americans, its better you do me a favor and keep the thank you to yourself. We're either in this together or we're not. You don't get the luxury of picking and choosing.

So please, unless you mean all of us, no more of that shallow, off-hand "thank you for your service."

Mansoor Shams is a U.S. Marine Corps Veteran, the founder of MuslimMarine.org and a Member on the Council on Foreign Relations. Twitter: @mansoortshams

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​