I served in the Navy during the mid-80s. My recollection of Veteran's Day in my teenage years is that it was primarily an excuse for department store sales. Nobody, as best I can recall, made any real effort to make it about veterans, let alone active duty servicemembers. The nation was only just starting to emerge from the post-Vietnam doldrums, and military service was not much looked up to. I can still recall people reacting with bafflement when I told them I was enlisting; one woman even asked me, very offhandedly, if my goal was "to save the world or destroy it."
Back then, the discounts for servicemembers that are omnipresent nowadays were unheard of. If anything, your military status made you a target for price gouging, the assumption being that you were from out of town and wouldn't know any better. Every base I served at was ringed with businesses the sole purpose of which was to separate you from your money as expeditiously as possible. If the base command took steps to protect people from this predatory behavior—say, by making one unscrupulous business or another "off-limits"—the commander was apt to get complaints from the local politicians, or, if the affected folks were connected enough, from the area's congressional representative. (Norman Schwarzkopf relates an anecdote along these lines from when he was the commanding general of the 24th MID in his autobiography.) Certainly no one was lining up to give us anything for free.
Other than the occasional old vet who might buy you a drink (in exchange for listening to his war stories), I can't recall anyone thanking me or acting like my service was anything special. In fact, it wasn't unheard of for businesses to refuse to serve people in the military. This happened to me once, and I heard of it happening to others. It was never overt, just a distinct sense that you were not welcome.
If you ever saw An Officer and a Gentleman, the depiction of how the AOCS cadets are viewed by the townsfolk in that movie was pretty accurate, in my experience. You were either a leech or a potential meal ticket, not a person serving your country. And that uniform-chasing dynamic was something you really only saw in small towns—if you were based in urban areas where the local girls had other opportunities, most of them wanted nothing to do with you.
Of course, there's a reason things have changed—we weren't at war then. The nation was starting to wake up to what had been done to the guys who served in Vietnam, but that didn't trickle down to current servicemembers (insert generic complaint about Boomer narcissism here). Everyone flocked to see Red Dawn and Rambo and all the Vietnam POW movies, but didn't give much thought to folks who were actually out in the Cold War. So often, I just felt ... invisible. Out of sight, out of mind.
Would I have taken a shooting war in exchange for more respect? Honestly, no. I lost one friend to a shipboard accident, and I'm glad that was the worst I experienced. And the truth is, I feel a little guilty about all this attention now—whether it's accepting discounts, standing up for recognition at baseball games, or when my kids give me stuff like the note at the top—not just because we weren't getting shot at but because, at the time, I hated an awful lot of my job—hated it enough that ending it felt like getting out of jail. The nostalgia for the stuff I'd done didn't come for a long time.
I don't mean any of this to suggest I'm jealous of the guys who went to Iraq and Afghanistan. They've gone through stuff far worse than I ever did. And, I can recall being told by Vietnam vets how much better we had it in the 80s, since no one was spitting on us or calling us names. So maybe we got about what we earned.
Don't let any of this stop you from thanking a vet today. Ambivalence or not, it's far better than the alternative.