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You're an ambassador, whether you like it or not

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- "Thank you for your service."

The first time I heard that I was a young captain. My shop was out for lunch downtown and an elderly woman came up to us as we were being seated and said, "Thank you for your service." At first, I thought that was odd. I had been in the Air Force for over six years as an officer and had never heard someone say that before. But this was in the fall of 2001, just after 9/11. This woman knew what we stood for and most likely what would be expected of us in the upcoming years.

Here we were, a bunch of military guys in uniform, downtown after a significant event in our nation's history. All eyes were on us. We were wearing flight suits at the time with American Flags on our shoulders. We were obviously military. Many of us have been in similar situations and these can be awkward.

In this situation, we went instantaneously from having lunch to being representatives for our nation. A lot of thoughts went through my mind in that short interaction: What does this person think of the military? What does she think of our nation? What image am I portraying?

If someone is thanking you for your service, they most likely already have a positive image of the military. Luckily, that is more common today than it has been at other times in our nation's history. I came into the Air Force just after Desert Storm. The military had won a very decisive victory in a short time. The country was proud and once again very supportive of the military. Today the public still has a generally positive image of the Armed Services. However, as servicemembers we need to remember that our actions will shape what the public thinks of the military.

Our uniforms are unique. They stand out and spell out that we are members of the United States Armed Forces. The airman battle uniform has a nametape right over your heart that says U.S. Air Force. Our fellow servicemen and women wear uniforms that say U.S. Navy, U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps. The emphasis here is on the "U.S." We are not a local militia; we serve and represent the nation. While we are only one sub-portion of the government's executive branch, we are the portion that many associate with the face and direction of our nation. Therefore, our actions can influence what the public thinks of not only ourselves, but the nation.

So what image are you portraying? Remember, you portray this image both on and off duty, both on-base and downtown. Think of the negative impacts of just a few. Take for example, the actions at My Lay during Vietnam or the prisoner treatment at Abu Ghraib. Are you helping the image of the military and our nation? Your neighbors look at you when you drive to work, pick up your kids after school or get a military discount on your dinner. We all have a responsibility to uphold a good image of the military and our nation. You don't even need to be in uniform, if someone knows you are in the military, they can still make that connection.

So the next time someone says "Thank you for your service," hold your head high, stand up straight, be as courteous as you can and say, "Thank you."
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