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Talking to a Veteran


Following a lot of conversations both here on E2 and elsewhere, I've decided that something should be written on the topic. This document is necessarily going to reflect a lot of my experience and feelings on the matter, but I do believe that it should be applicable across the board. I will attempt to keep the specifics of my experience to a minimum and focus more on the broader questions and issues that people have approached me with.

I do not, and could not, claim to be an authority on the topic - every servicemember and their experiences are different to some degree, but I think the information and suggestions here are better in any case than ignorance, intentional or otherwise.

What's the big deal with combat, anyway?

In the broadest sense, there are two kinds of veterans in or out of the armed forces - veterans (henceforth "vets"), and combat veterans (henceforth "CV"). This is an important and also, in many cases, legal distinction. First and foremost, let me say that all honorable service has merit, and that one should not necessarily consider the service of a CV superior to that of a vet.

Let me first cover the legal distinctions. A veteran, that is, one who has served in the armed forces, may never have seen combat even though they could have been deployed overseas either to, or "in support of" a combat action or campaign. For example, an MP or a cook could have been deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, but never left the aircraft carrier, or never set foot in-country. They may have earned a campaign medal, such as the Global War On Terror Expeditionary Medal, but a campaign medal doesn't necessary mean they were a combat veteran. On the flipside, aircrew may never have actually set foot in Afghanistan but only flown missions over it, not flying enough to qualify for a campaign medal but still being a CV. In fact, it is sometimes exceedingly difficult to "prove", via paperwork alone, the difference between a vet and a CV.

The DD 214 or other equivalent discharge paperwork for CVs will not have a specific label, but in the official list of awarded decorations there may be incontrovertible proof of combat; many medals or devices are only able to be earned in combat, such as the Combat Infantryman Badge, or a "V" device on certain medals. The awards and deployments listed on the DD 214 are often of extreme importance for vets and CVs seeking benefits during discharge or later, for service-related disabilities.

Now that the legal implications are out of the way, let's talk about some of the personal and social distinctions that separate a CV from a vet.

Within the ranks there are certain distinctions in having served under fire; take, for example, two USAF E-6s with equal time in service and equal time in grade, in the same career field and in the same shop. One of them has done two tours in Afghanistan and has a Combat Action Medal, the other has never left his first duty station. A certain amount of respect is accorded to the one who has "been in the shit", and his opinions on certain topics will probably be given more weight by his subordinates, peers, and likely superiors, all else being equal.

This is the briefest touch on that facet of this subject, and more detail is probably unnecessary.

How do I know I'm talking to a veteran?

In many cases, you won't. They're just people, and they come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and hairstyles.

Sometimes there are giveaways, like a "USMC RETIRED" ballcap, or a bumper sticker, or a lapel pin, or any number of things. Maybe you've seen his or her resume, maybe they mentioned it in passing (or not so much in passing!). Maybe there's a shadow box in their home or office.

There's no easy way to pick them out of a crowd.

The Questions

Most people who have never served are curious. This is natural, and not something to be skittered away from or ashamed of. However, there are certain questions that come up over and over and over again that mark the asker as blatantly and painfully ignorant, completely insensitive, childishly naive, or any mixture of the three.

These are the questions:

  • Did you ever kill anybody?
  • Did you lose a lot of friends?
  • Did you ever get shot?

Let me put this bluntly: If there is any shred of doubt in your mind whether it's okay or not, don't ask these questions. It's difficult to overstate the brutality of being asked these questions by someone who has no idea what they're really asking. The personal nature of the potential answers goes beyond anything that most people are likely to ever fathom. I can't begin to explain what it feels like to be asked these things at dinner, or a party, or best of all, a job interview.

They cut directly to the three most traumatic experiences that one can have while serving. In many cases these three questions, asked casually by an honestly and simply curious person, are on about the same level as asking a rape victim "What was it like?"

If you want to hear some war stories, ask yourself if it's the right time and place, and find a gentler way of framing the question. If they want to talk about it, they'll understand your interest with simple, open-ended questions like "Did you ever go overseas?" and share what they feel like sharing.

Another alley you might want to reconsider walking down is "Hey, what do you think about (current event)?"

As SPCGregoryChris has expressed, not everybody wants to be a source of opinions or commentary on what's going on with the military. It can be a sensitive, or even tiresome subject. Some vets dread the ringing phone any time a major headline pops up.

The Politics of Serving

These discussions are right up there with The Questions. Unless you're talking to a General, nobody in the military has any say about where they go or what they do, outside of an unlawful order, which is astonishingly rare.

Trying to argue with a servicemember or veteran over the politics of war or going to war, or whether or not a given military action is "right" or "wrong" is like trying to argue with a dog over whether or not it's right or wrong to be chained up in the backyard. Some of them like it, some of them don't, none of them have any control over whether or not they're ordered to go somewhere and do something. Granted, Americans have a choice of whether or not to join the military in the first place, but trying to argue that with a servicemember or veteran is likely to get you a cold shoulder at best. Save your breath.

I want to thank them for their service, but... how?

You just have to say so!

"Thank you for your service!" and a smile are all you need to do. You would be surprised at the number of vets who never hear such a thing during or after their time "in". Some people are afraid or bashful, some people still throw buckets of blood on troops during protests, and some people just don't care either way. But if you're one of those who do, don't be scared. Just say so - I promise it'll make their day!

Other than "Thank you for your service!" some other appreciated sentiments are "Welcome home!" for CVs (particularly to Vietnam veterans, who were in many cases not welcomed home at all!) and the ever-popular "Let me buy you a beer!"

For God's sake, save your wish-I-would-haves.

There's nothing that wears quite as thin as fast as hearing a stranger tell you about how much they regret not signing up, or how they were this close but didn't for whatever reason, or whatever it is they might feel obligated to say. On so many levels, this is one of the most offensive and irritating things that someone can proffer as smalltalk.

Yeah, but what if they have PTSD?

PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, is the latest in a long line of terms for what was once known as shell shock.

I won't dig too deep into the literature on PTSD here, but there are a few things that are important for me to communicate. Firstly, the diagnosis rates for PTSD are at an all-time high for combat troops, and there are a lot of interconnected reasons for that. There are many, many variables in play for whether or not and how severely a given troop will be impacted, and there is a lot of research going into the ways to best prevent and treat it. For now, it's clear that certain factors have a large impact; The troop's age, personality, and coping mechanisms for battlefield stress, and frequency and number of deployments.

In the simplest terms, this boils down to how well one can handle killing and the threat of being killed, and how often one is asked to handle those things. Seems simple, right? If it was actually that easy, we'd have a better grip on it by now.

There are many, many myths about vets and PTSD. The enduring, but slowly softening, image in the mind of much of the public is that CVs come home "all PTSD'd out", and rapidly descend into alcoholism, violence, and symptoms of Hollywood-style schizophrenia. They lose their families and jobs and become homeless vagabonds.

These are the most extreme cases, and should not be taken to be a type classification for sufferers of combat related PTSD. The average CV suffering from PTSD has symptoms that are not generally so threating or obvious, nor do they merit the level of discrimination, particularly in the workforce, that people often harbor.

Common symptoms are varying levels of: hyper-vigilance, insomnia, anxiety, and agoraphobia. It's easy to understand why if you understand the conditions of a typical combat deployment. Extremely crowded living conditions and urban combat, constant noise, unpredictable explosions and gunfire; and all of this for upwards of a year straight with little to no R&R, to be repeated every other or every third year for four to six years at the minimum.

Don't assume that every vet is going to "snap" someday, or that they come home unable to cope or function. Hollywood and the media do a great job of portraying and covering the edge cases, and most people are stuck to the Lt. Dan image of what PTSD means.

"Welcome Home!"

As mentioned before, "Welcome home!" is an important concept, particularly for CVs. There is an incredible adjustment for the redeployed or separating/separated CV to get back into civilian life, and they are for better or worse irrevocably changed for their experiences.

If you are family or friend to a particular CV, you should seek guidance from a military chaplain or the VA on how to adjust, and how to help your CV adjust. In recent years the support apparatus for CVs and families has made incredible progress, and you will be astonished at how helpful the (FREE!) seminars, books, and pamphlets can be to help you and your CV get settled in for the future.

If all else fails, you can always get hold of a chaplain by calling your CV's branch of service's local recruiter, and asking for a number for a chaplain. If they question it at all, explain what you're trying to do, and they'll be happy to help. The VA's website is another good start, if you have a little more time to do some digging. See also the "Resources" listed in the footnotes of this writeup.

It is important to note that your religion or lack thereof is unimportant when dealing with a military chaplain. They are trained and certified counselors and in many cases much more, in addition to their religious duties, and their primary duty is always to look after the mental (and of course if asked, spiritual) well-being of troops.

Selected resources:

Let's get this straight right from the start
Matters like this are close to my heart
so don't call me up in the middle of the night
I sleep soundly now but I haven't always
and sleeping bears don't take kindly to dark hallways
So remember that when you're opening up doors
and flipping on lights that haven't been on before.

I saw a lot of things and no matter what you ask
I'm not going to answer
I don't have to answer.
I'll answer when and if I even have an answer.

Yes, you're welcome for my service
and sometimes it is nice to hear it
but sometimes I don't want to be reminded of the things I used to fear- if
you just stop to think about it this way-
Do you thank every teacher that taught your kid math?
Do you thank every butcher for the hamburger?
If you see me out wearing my patches,
come shake my hand,
come offer congratulations
come offer words of wisdom if you have 'em
But if I am out walking my dog
or swinging my son
from the monkey bars at the park
don't feel like you need to embark
in some awkward conversation.

Did you know me before I went to the desert?
Then it is okay to ask me how my mother's heart is.
Did you see the last Brewers' game?
We can talk about the score.
We can talk about the weather
I'm more than happy to pleasure
your small talk about local politics
and what you'll be wearing in the time of treats and tricks
But what I did over there
is not up for discussion.
That's not on the table
and I'm not able
to convey all the feelings I have about it.

No, I'm not angry
No, I'm not a victim of PTSD
But don't blame me for not wanting to talk about God
when I haven't seen him in a long time
don't hold it against me
when I don't want to chit-chat about the technicalities
of the fatalities
That you saw Anderson Cooper report
while sitting in your lounge chair
sipping on a night cap.

So thank you for the thank yous
but no thank you.

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