This Veterans Day the country will pause to honor those who have served in the U.S. military, including more than 2.7 million veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is a day to remember and reflect upon the sacrifices of our military veterans and thank them for their service. Our American veterans come from all walks of life and have fought in different wars and in different uniforms. But one thing they have in common is the challenging lifestyle they led fighting for our freedom. Many sacrificed their lives, and many others still suffer from the trauma of military life.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), our veterans frequently face mental health challenges such as PTSD, traumatic brain injury and depression. Statistics show that on average, 17 veterans a day die by suicide. In 2017, nearly one in every seven suicides nationally was a veteran. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says up to 20% of military personnel who served in Iraq or Afghanistan experience PTSD each year. If you know someone who is suffering, share the Veterans Crisis Line (Dial 988, then Press 1 or text 838255) with them. It is available 24/7.
Today may be the day when the veteran in your life wants to share his or her experiences in the military. Experts say the best way to support their conversation is to let them tell their own story and be a good listener.
“This is the veteran’s opportunity to give, and your opportunity to receive,” says clinical psychologist Regina Koepp, writing for Psychology Today. “Don’t expect this conversation to happen in public. Military experiences can be emotional, and people don’t want to be vulnerable in public. Consider sharing a meal together and allow the conversation to happen naturally.
“Or do an activity together, like a walk or a hike, or working a puzzle together, and then ask if they’d be willing to share,” Koepp says, adding that is important to respect their boundaries. Veterans who have experienced war or other traumas often want to protect loved ones from the atrocities they witnessed or were part of.
“If you have a sense that the veteran is holding back, respect that this is their boundary and don’t push it,” says Koepp, who adds that listeners should be empathic to help reinforce the bond and offer more security to the vet.
It’s also important to meet the vet with love and acceptance.
“it’s an incredibly vulnerable thing for a veteran to share their military experiences, especially if they’ve experienced combat or other traumatic events,” says Koepp. “Military culture is well-known to be rigid, punitive, and shaming, especially when it comes to being vulnerable.”
According to War on the Rocks, some of the questions to avoid when talking to a veteran are:
“Did you ever kill anyone?” This is the gold standard for questions never to ask someone who has served in uniform. It is thoughtless and disrespectful.
“Did you see dead bodies?” This is another insensitive question that may trigger a jarring image never to be forgotten.
“What was the worst thing you ever saw?” This is guaranteed to bring back painful memories that a veteran may be trying hard to forget. Images of dead comrades, the wounded suffering in pain and the carnage of war are pictures an sounds the mind works hard to erase.
Instead, you may initiate conversations with empathetic queries:
“What service were you in? Why did you choose that one?” Each branch of service, the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps has their own culture and veterans often appreciate the opportunity to talk about their decision to serve.
“Are you still in the military? What are you doing now?” These questions allow veterans to know you are interested in their current lives more than lurid tales of the past, says War on the Rocks.
“What was your job?” Veterans performed many diverse specialties ranging from dog trainers to musicians. Asking a veteran about the job she or he had in uniform may initiate a surprising conversation.
Experts say that simply thanking a veteran for his or her service often elicits a negative reaction. It seems trite to many veterans. Instead, say “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.
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