The time between someone finding out about my time in Iraq and their first question always seems like an eternity. No matter the bent of their politics or previous interaction with service members or Vets, the wheels always turn in search of what to say next. Some practice restraint and respect my privacy; others poke and prod as if a combat deployment demands a play-by-play of all the sordid moments. Movies and television make it seem like an overseas vacation gone wrong, where troops come home and everything goes back to normal as the credits roll.
Many have spoken about the divide between the military and civilians (a theme that goes back decades since the all volunteer force was established), but it doesn’t end when someone leaves active duty or the reserve component. It becomes tethered to Veterans and has the ability to impact jobs, relationships and education. So what can a civilian do to help bridge the gap? The crux of the issue is civility, situational awareness, and common sense. If civilians keep the following tenets in mind, they can help welcome us home to a world that may seem strange and inhospitable.
Do: Ask About Our Buddies
My favorite stories involve the guys from my platoon. They’re funny, easy to tell, and offer a glimpse into the personalities of people that are typically seen shooting from rooftops or kicking in doors on CNN. When folks hear about three soldiers dying here, or one Marine seriously wounded there, they become abstract concepts—unrecognizable people laboring under heavy gear and fighting in unpronounceable Afghan hamlets or trash-strewn Iraqi streets. From these stories, civilians can develop a human side of the military that may have been previously undeveloped.
Don’t: Talk Politics
When Iraq was invaded, I was a senior in high school. I wasn’t even old enough to buy a pack of cigarettes. Years later, even as my unit deployed, my paycheck as an active duty lower enlisted reflected how much clout I had in foreign policy and Congressional circles: none. The military remains under civilian control, and they decide when and where to go to war. The military simply executes. It is incredibly difficult to hear from civilians why the invasion and occupation were either triumphs in democracy or exercises in fascism. Often, an answer to a question is designed to justify their beliefs so they can say, “Well, I know a guy who was in Iraq and. . . .” We were the tip of the spear that jammed into the ribs of nation building and regime change. Talk to the people in the powdered wigs in Washington about the hows and the whys.
Most people like to discuss the formative years of their lives. For some it’s college, or their first job or time spent traveling the world. For many Veterans, that time is their military service. But it can be a complex subject and only parts are open for frank discussion. Instead of firing off a bunch of questions, listen to what a Veteran volunteers to talk about. That can be a handy guide for what they want to discuss, and listening might simply be what some Vets need.
Don’t: Be Cavalier with Questions
“Did you kill anyone?”
“Did any of your friends die?”
“Do you have PTSD?”
“Do you regret going there?”
The questions above make any Veteran cringe, and I’ve gotten them many times in the past from well-meaning but tragically unaware people. They are the primary reason I keep my service with some people a secret. It should be common sense to stay away from such flippant, offensive questioning, but our blood soaked culture doesn’t always allow for discreet and respectful questions distanced from the gore of combat. Yes, those things are true of some people who leave the service. No, it is not any of your business. If we want to talk about those things, we’ll bring it up. Until then, loud parties, bars and the break room are hardly appropriate venues to discuss violent death and the philosophy of war.
Do: Try To Learn Something
For the most part, I’m glad many people are curious about the military and my experiences, and I’m certain many Veterans, young and old, share my sentiment. But it seems silly in the information age to think women go to war without bringing a rifle, or that I must have deployed to Iran (as my first boss out of the Army thought). If you want to ask a Veteran about their experiences, start by learning the lingo, geography and history of where they served, be it in Vietnam, Kuwait or a German air base during the Cold War. It’s a little research that goes a long way in building appreciation and respect for your fellow countrymen and women.
Don’t: Assume Everyone Is Crippled With PTSD
Easily accessible information has a tragic downside: we consume it quickly without understanding complex problems and issues and the media is left to fill in the gaps. When people hear about post-traumatic stress in the news, they instantly believe it happens to everyone. These misguided beliefs don’t just affect personal relationships, but can also adversely impact the ability for Veterans to find employment. Managers who don’t understand PTSD might pass over a résumé with military credentials for the shortsighted concern about post-traumatic stress in the workplace. It’s true that many Veterans face challenges when they come back home, but it doesn’t help to treat Vets like broken souls and melancholic sad sacks. You might be surprised by our resilience.
Do: Have an Open Mind
People join the military to avoid jail, escape a broken home or to take advantage of education benefits. Those are popular misconceptions that usually paint only some of the pictures of a Veteran’s service. The reasons that men and women enlist are as varied as the people who make up the armed forces. Civilians often expect untraveled, uneducated and ignorant country bumpkins to fill the ranks. The reality is far from that tired misconception. Navy Veteran and VA employee Paul Sherbo highlighted other stereotypes that persist in the country. It never hurts to treat Veterans as individuals and not brainwashed clones broken down by groupthink.
So you’ve learned the survival manual and can’t wait to start communicating with Veterans. Now what do you do? You can start by strolling down to your local VA Medical Center and volunteer your time in support of Vets. Or you could ask the retired Marine down the street if you could mow his lawn for free. You might just tell a Vet you know that you’re around for help, whether it’s to borrow a hammer or to have someone to talk to. It might be as simple as saying “Welcome home.” Be creative when you put some action behind ‘Support the Troops.’ It might be unfamiliar territory for you, but that’s okay. It’s new for us too.
Closing the Gap
Joining the military and serving, both during peace and in war, can have a profound impact on those who rotated through the service. Some of the changes are good and some aren’t. After my unit got home from our fifteen-month tour in Iraq, it took my first conversation with a civilian to realize the difficult path of reintegration that lay before us. The war lasted 443 days for my platoon. That number is finite. As long as it felt, it had to end someday. But the war doesn’t end when the wheels touch down on home soil. It’s a lifelong process sometimes wrought with difficulty, due to a sizable gap between civilians and the military. Once we become Veterans, it’s up to regular folks to accept us back into the community. How can two groups of people, separated by a canyon, come together? The answer is simple. They both build bridges.