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How we learned to say thanks

Every evening at shift change time for New York City hospitals, people isolating in their apartments open the windows and clap for the health care workers who are leaving their jobs for the day — those dangerous, unstinting hours of treating desperately ill COVID-19 patients.

New Yorkers have found this way to say thank you from afar. They signal their gratitude and admiration which, while it doesn't make the medical workers any safer or less exhausted, sends a supremely important message: We know what you are sacrificing, we know you are doing it on our behalf, and we want you to know that we know.

The outpouring for nurses and doctors copies the public gratitude and honor that Americans now customarily pay to military service members when they return from deployment. Since the Gulf War and and through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and anywhere that Americans serve, a welcome ceremony awaits them on return. Both the medical and the military personnel are standing in for us, and by thanking them we force ourselves to admit it.

For Vietnam veterans it was not that way, as we know. But now that most are in their seventies and among the age group most threatened by this pandemic, it seems they have performed one more service for their country. They did it by serving as living reminders to the nation that it had failed to appreciate or honor their sacrifices or adequately care for them as they suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Agent Orange illnesses and other afflictions of mind and body.

When the shabby treatment they received was no longer deniable and its after-effects shadowed the lives of many of them, Americans woke up to the realization that it stemmed from the utter failure to recognize their service in an unpopular war. It was too late for timely thanks to the Vietnam vets, but we could ever after thank those who followed them.

Wars come in many forms; the present struggle to beat down the coronavirus and save lives is being waged in hospitals and laboratories. Its foot soldiers include emergency responders, delivery drivers, grocery and pharmacy and warehouse employees, and anyone contributing in any way to public safety. That includes the ones who stay home, keeping themselves off the lists of the infected so as not to create a need for care from overstretched resources. It includes the governmental leaders who make the plans that guide an unfamiliar way of life.

Tasks as hard as the ones they are doing should never go thankless. The unthanked generation should know, as they shelter from the pandemic at home, in veterans' homes or nursing homes, that at least part of their sacrifice achieved something great. It taught Americans to be grateful for those performing the most dangerous jobs and to recognize that we are in their debt.

Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board.



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