For your personal space & sanity, carry an extra set of clothes.
I am a career senior military officer stationed in a U.S. city with a small but bustling base. When I’m in civilian clothes, I read as just another 40-something dad, but in uniform I’m the BIG DAMN HERO. I get thanked for my service to the point of distraction. I’ve had parents force their kids to come up to me to thank me in front of my own kids at school drop-off. People try to bring up the details of combat, which I’m not interested in talking about. The worst is at the grocery store. I often stop by on my way home to pick up ingredients for dinner, and for whatever reason the produce aisle seems to bring out the most obsessed veteran-hunters. Handshakes. Bro-fists and chest bumps. Crazy-uncle jingoism. And so many uninvited hugs.
Recently, while I was grabbing some produce off the shelves, a woman came up to me from behind and initiated a hug completely out of nowhere. A lost-in-thought combat veteran is not a good person to surprise. I spun around, took a step back, and asked the lady not to touch me. She backed away with tears in her eyes, and another woman who’d seen what happened gave me a dirty look. I told her that I was just as entitled to my personal space as she was and that my clothes weren’t an invitation for physical contact. Yesterday in the checkout line a woman approached me, looking nervous, then handed me a $100 gift card for the grocery store. I told her I didn’t want it and she should give it to someone who needs it (I get paid plenty), but she insisted. (I took the card and donated it to a local charity that serves refugees.)
I’ve had enough. I’ve thought about changing before I head home, but carrying civilian clothes to work in addition to gym clothes is a pain. Mostly I just want to be left alone. I don’t want any more hugs, but I don’t want to appear ungrateful. Is declining hugs and unwanted charity rude, making me a bad representative of the service? Or should I start packing dad clothes in my gym bag?