If you ever watched the long running American television show ER set in the fictional County General Hospital you can have not failed to notice that over its fifteen year run the true star of the show wasn’t a young George Clooney or Julianna Marguiles but the city of Chicago where it was set.
Hardly an episode went by when one location shot or another failed to show the giant skyscrapers, the beautiful shore of Lake Michigan or the rumbling El trains seemingly from a different age.
It was on just such a train that a few months ago I had what for any Briton is a strange experience but is altogether commonplace for our US cousins.
As I sat with my son on a packed commuter train from the city’s O’Hare international airport into town an elderly gentleman got on board. Straight away and with delightful manners a youth, maybe 16 or 17 years old, stood to offer his place.
It was only when the older man sat down that I noticed he was wearing a baseball cap bearing the legend ‘US Marine Corps Veteran’ and I heard the young man say to his elder ‘Sir, thank you for your service’ and I felt tears welling up inside of me.
It wasn’t the first occasion something like this moment has happened to me on my trips to the United States, in fact it is really quite common, but each time the result has been the same, a feeling of humility, gratitude and a little envy.
These days Americans are tremendously proud of their armed forces and uniformed services and perhaps with a degree of shame in how returning veterans were treated, or simply all too often forgotten, after the horrors of Vietnam many, many of them have taken it upon themselves to vocally express the debt of gratitude they owe to men and women who have served and for those who did not return from armed conflict.
It is an expression of gratitude that manifests itself all year round, unlike our own public November Remembrance services, and comes from the mouths of people in every walk of life. It is a powerful reminder of the role of public service, service to one’s own country.
In our world of today public service is all too often passed over or ridiculed when it should be applauded from the highest heights.
It is absolutely true that servicemen and woman enlist in our armed forces as a career or often as a way out of a tough upbringing but we should never forget that they do so with a sense a duty, a sense which grows over time. In doing so young men and women are prepared to put their very lives on the line without questioning, on occasion, ludicrous orders that have been passed down to them from above.
They are not people for whom service is an abstract notion but for whom it is a tangible aspect of their everyday lives. Every one of us who has not served has at least a duty to show respect and gratitude for those who have.
It is, in truth however, not just the members of our armed forces who place themselves at risk in their duty to the wider public.
Thankfully in our mostly law abiding country the deaths of serving police officers, such as those of PC’s Nicola Hughes and Fiona Bone who were shot in 2012 in the line of duty in Greater Manchester are rare occurrences, but they do happen. Assaults on police officers are far more common.
In the same way doctors, nurses and paramedics are often exposed to violence in the course of their work helping patients who often require assistance because of their own stupidity and excess. NHS statistics report that in 2008 twelve percent of staff had been physically assaulted by patients or their relatives and friends in that year alone.
Our firefighters place themselves in harm’s way daily. In 2007 four firefighters were killed on duty in Atherstone on Stour, Warwickshire whilst tackling a blaze, caused by suspected arson, at a warehouse in the village. There have been a number of firefighter fatalities since that tragedy eight years ago.
Now clearly not everyone can be a firefighter, nurse, policeman or soldier and not everyone would want to be. There is nothing wrong with that. Our society needs entrepreneurs willing to take risks to generate profit as much as it needs people to work for their businesses to make those companies successful but on the whole those people, us, do not put our lives at risk for the good of our wider community.
Those men and women that do deserve our gratitude for their service to us.
It should however also be a tangible gratitude. Many members of our armed forces eventually leave the services and face difficulty finding employment in civilian life all too often because their years of experience, and indeed transferrable skills, do not easily manifest themselves on job application forms against more traditional qualifications.
It is great to see businesses and other organisations recognising such problems and taking positive steps to address them through measures such as guaranteed interview schemes for forces veterans.
We need to see a lot more measures being put in place for those men and women who have offered so much.
At a time when amongst the pressure of academic subjects our young people are also rightly being taught work related learning and enterprise skills it is imperative that the notion of public service to our community is every bit as important as individual rights and opportunity.
Our government’s National Citizen Service scheme for 15 to 17 year olds is a great start but so much more can be done.
This week a serving police officer told me that it was 27 years to the day since he had passed out from training and first received his warrant card. I thought that there was no better time to try out that American custom and so I said to him ‘thank you for your service’. He told me that he truly appreciated such gratitude, it is the very least that I could have done.
I’m not saying we should start running up to every police officer, soldier or other uniformed service personnel every time we see them and lay ourselves prostrate at their feet. But next time you see a bobby on the beat or an old gentleman proudly wearing his regimental tie just think about taking a moment to say hello and maybe saying thanks to them for what they were prepared to lay on the line for us all. Their lives.
We will all soon be proudly wearing our poppies and rightly thinking about those who gave everything in wars that have passed. Let’s make that act of remembrance not just an annual event but an all year round expression of our gratitude.