Best Defense

Why I don’t like to be thanked for my service — and why getting out is good

I didn’t volunteer to make a sacrifice.


By Colonel David Gurney, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)
Best Defense guest columnist

Like many others, I am faintly embarrassed every time I am thanked for my service by well-meaning people.  Thank you, but truly, it’s nonsense.

Honestly, that’s not why I signed up. Many of us wanted adventure, jets, travel, and freedom from working at U.S. Steel as a journeyman metallurgical engineer. Risk was as unimportant to me as health care insurance. That was stuff for old people.

I didn’t volunteer to make a sacrifice. NASCAR drivers face far worse odds than I did flying jets. Do we thank Danica Patrick for her service?  Of course not, but she thanked me. Her risks are also voluntary and she would be nowhere else.

The armed forces offered me and like-minded, able-bodied Americans exposure to far greater responsibility, education, adventure, leadership, and personal risk at an earlier age than any other walk of life. And that is what so many of us craved. We didn’t bear the burden of our calling — that was carried by our parents and later by our spouses.

The second-greatest service that the Department of Defense provides our nation is a blood transfusion of responsible, disciplined patriots to a civilian world desperately in need of them.

It has now been 11 years since I retired from the Marine Corps. I have come to think that military personnel should enter private industry as fast as they possibly can after a satisfying government service, no matter their rank. The ability to build teams, to inspire employees and colleagues to success, and to manage risk is an art the corporate world needs desperately — and rewards well. Former military personnel cut through the civilian world like hot knives through butter at every level. In the oil industry, I seek to hire veterans for all openings and have yet to be disappointed.

The economic instrument of national power is fundamental to all others in our nation’s portfolio. Our armed forces are unacknowledged engines of national vigor and growth. So when I read of military manpower management policies driving out talent, I am not alarmed. I think it is a good thing. Our country benefits coming and going, as do we.

Colonel David Gurney was a Harrier pilot in the Marine Corps. He is now vice president of a small oil company.

Photo credit: David Gurney 

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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