war on the rocks

How to Talk to a Veteran

November 7, 2017

This Veterans Day, the country will pause to honor those that have served in the U.S. military — including more than 2.7 million veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet, as many have noted, fewer than 1 percent of Americans serve in the military today, and they are growing increasingly distinct and isolated from the remaining 99 percent. Most Americans hold the men and women who have fought in these wars in high personal esteem, yet often struggle to connect with this new generation of veterans.

Starting a meaningful conversation with these veterans of our current wars remains extraordinarily difficult for the vast majority of Americans who have no association with the military. They are often afraid of saying the wrong thing, appearing intrusive, or of somehow offending a veteran and triggering an angry response. And, as Rosa Brooks has eloquently written, ignorance leads many Americans to stereotype military men and women into three different categories: the hero, who is always brave, courageous, and selfless; the villain, who enjoys brutally killing others; and the victim, whose guilt over what he or she has done in war leads to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or an increased risk of substance abuse, homelessness, unemployment, and suicide.

Overcoming these stereotypes isn’t just a matter of courtesy or kindness, or even of treating veterans fairly. In many ways, this growing gap between soldier and civilian underscores a quietly crumbling facet of American citizenship: the obligation of everyday citizens to understand and take responsibility for our military and its members, and to understand what we ask our men and women in uniform to do on our behalf. Connecting personally with the veterans around us can strengthen that bond and help restore some of that sense of responsibility between soldier and citizen.

To encourage our fellow citizens to reach out and connect with veterans — not only on Veterans Day but every day — we offer the following suggestions about questions to avoid, questions to ask, how to say “thank you,” some lighter questions, and finally some deeper questions to ask once a relationship has been established.

Questions to Avoid

“Did you ever kill anyone?” This is the gold standard for questions never to ask someone who has served in uniform. And yes, it still does get asked, far more often than you would think possible. No veteran who has lived through that searing experience is ever going to want to talk about it to a passerby, and often not even to close family or friends. Those who ask this make themselves look thoughtless, ignorant, and extremely disrespectful. In sum: Never, ever, ever.

“Did you see any dead bodies?” This is another example of insensitivity. Many veterans will have never have seen anyone dead, but for the vast majority of those who have, it’s a sickening snapshot that will never be forgotten. And whether those dead bodies were Americans, enemy soldiers, or innocent civilians, nobody needs that jarring image refreshed.

“What was the worst thing you ever saw?” This is guaranteed to bring back memories that a veteran may be trying hard to forget. Images of dead comrades, the wounded suffering in pain, and the inevitable human carnage of war are pictures and sounds the mind works hard to erase. Asking about them brings these sensations immediately back to the fore, and inflicts the pain all over again.

“I almost joined the military, but…” Most veterans have heard some version of this refrain, and discount everything after the “but.” Sadly, it never seems to be followed by what that person actually did do to serve their country or community in some way — joined AmeriCorps, volunteered at a local food bank, organized sponsors for a deployed unit, or anything else.

“Do you have PTSD?” This is the victim stereotype: “If you served, you must be damaged.” Most veterans do not have PTSD, and the vast majority view their military service in a positive way. This question insults veterans by assuming they are volatile powder kegs of emotions just waiting for a spark to explode. A friend of ours who is a recent combat veteran told us why this question infuriates him so much: “I can tell from the way the question is framed that they usually see me as some suffering, broken human being. It’s obvious they don’t care about me or my service.”

“[Insert your politics here.]” Do not push your views about whether we should have gone to war in Iraq or Afghanistan, or ask for a veteran’s opinion of current or past presidents. Political statements that impugn the rationale for our recent wars and implicitly project the divisiveness of American politics at home onto the battlefield are unwelcome by almost all veterans. They signed up to defend the country, regardless of their personal views, and bridle at the notion of having their military service used to justify one political position or another.

Questions to Ask  

“What service were you in? Why did you choose that one?” Veterans often appreciate the opportunity to talk about their decision to serve, and every vet identifies with their specific service. The Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps each have their own culture, history and customs. Not understanding that each service is very different from one another is a common mistake. 

“Are you still in the military? What are you doing now? What are your friends doing now?” These are terrific questions to find out more about the current lives of veterans and to show that you are interested in more than lurid tales of firefights and dead bodies.

“What inspired you to join?” This is a subtle but important salute to veterans. It is a question that recognizes that each one felt some spark, some impulse that brought them into the recruiting station to embark upon a very different path than most of their fellow citizens. Let them tell you why. 

“What was your job? What was the most rewarding part of doing it?” Most veterans take pride in their military jobs and like talking about the parts that they found most fulfilling. But this is also important because many Americans erroneously believe that all members of the military, especially those in the Army and Marines, directly fight the enemy. The military includes literally hundreds of diverse specialties, from welders to dog handlers to musicians. Asking a vet about the job he or she had in uniform may open a surprising new conversation.

“What surprised you the most about being overseas?” For most veterans, an overseas deployment was the first time in their life that they visited a part of the world outside of the United States. This is a great opportunity to learn about what that felt like — and you might be surprised by these stories as well.

How to Say “Thank You”

“Thank you for your service” has become a common refrain during the recent wars, but veteran reactions to it are decidedly mixed. Some veterans appreciate that many people want to express their gratitude and support, while others — including one of your column authors — react negatively and find it an all-too-easy brush-off of any further need to be involved with our wars. (The recent film with this title, and the book upon which it is based, use the phrase ironically.) If you want to avoid seeming trite, try saying thanks in one of these ways instead.

“Thank you for putting the rest of your life on hold to serve your country.” This shows that you understand the totality of what a veteran has given up in choosing to spend several years in uniform.

“Thank you for the sacrifices you made being away from your family.” This thanks the veteran in much the same way as the previous question, but also adds something specific and meaningful to you.

“Thank you for stepping up and choosing to serve when so many others didn’t.” This demonstrates that you know that the veteran felt a powerful commitment to defend the nation and made truly life-changing choices that others did not.

On the Lighter Side

“What is the funniest thing that ever happened to you in the military?” This opens up all kind of potentially happy memories and comical stories, capturing everything from boot camp humor to unexpected laughs under fire. Every vet has some of these stories and most will enjoy sharing some of their favorites.

 “Was the food as crappy as we hear?” This connects you to the human dynamics of everyday life in uniform. Everybody eats, and people in the military have a wide range of culinary experiences that can only be described as interesting — and, thankfully, are rarely replicated in civilian life.

“What did you do in your free time while you were deployed?” Yes, members of the military have down time when deployed, even in combat zones. Soldiers often describe combat as long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Many soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines overseas do things in their free time that might surprise you, like making parodies of Carly Rae Jepsen songs or filming other funny and creative YouTube videos.

 The Advanced Course: After Your First Conversation

“What’s the most important thing you learned from your service?” or “What made you most proud of being in uniform?” These questions might prompt a long pause, but they are worth asking. Some veterans may have never reflected upon their service in this way. Pondering these questions might help them gain greater insight about their time in uniform — and probably help you learn something important too.

“How did the United States change while you were gone? Any veteran who spends significant time overseas returns to the United States with a different perspective of the country and its people. Find out what it feels like to come back. (For example, one of your column authors was both struck and disheartened by how much of American culture is dominated by an incessant obsession with sports and entertainment.)

 “Would you do it again? Why or why not?” This can be a very tough question, but even some veterans who have been grievously wounded will still answer “yes.” Understanding how and why a veteran chooses to answer this question shines a powerful light on the meaning of service to them — and it helps us all understand each other better.

We hope that you use these suggestions on this Veterans Day and in the years ahead to better understand some of your fellow citizens who have chosen to serve in uniform. Many of them have done extraordinary things, but they still see themselves (and mostly want to be treated) as regular people just like everyone else. As one of our veteran friends explained: “I guess what I really want non-veterans to do is to see us as fellow Americans first and foremost.” Perhaps the biggest sign of respect you can show is to get to know them and their life experiences as you would get to know anyone else in your community. Military service is only one part of their life story — but finding out more about that part is the best way to express your gratitude for the many sacrifices they have chosen to make. Happy Veterans Day!

 

Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Both also serve as Nonresident Senior Fellows at the Atlantic Council. Their column appears in War on the Rocks monthly. Sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter to track their articles as well as their public events.

Image: Steven L. Shepard, Presidio of Monterey Public Affairs vis U.S. Army