If you’ve ever stopped or stuttered midsentence when talking to a vet recently home from war, you wouldn’t be alone. Not knowing what to say to returning soldiers is a common struggle says Mike Liguori, a former Marine who served during the Iraq War and is now director of community at Unite US, an online platform that connects current and former military members and their families.
Well-intentioned friends and family members may say something that actually increases stress or negative emotions: Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, affects up to 20 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. With no official blueprint on how best to help military members ease back into civilian life, we surveyed a range of vets and experts to tell us what’s helpful — or hurtful — for vets to hear from loved ones.
What Not to Say
1. Don’t ask if they’ve killed anyone.
“It’s a frighteningly difficult question to answer for a lot of reasons,” says Army veteran Nate Rawlings, 32, who served two tours in Iraq. “It perpetuates a stereotype that all combat is shooting at bad guys and blowing things up. The truth is that combat involves long periods of boredom, anxiety and anticipation, punctuated by bursts of action many people would rather not discuss with family and friends, let alone strangers. Most veterans, at least for me, and most of the ones I know and have talked to, aren’t prepared to answer that question when they come home. Give them a pass — if they want to tell you, they might do so, in their own good time.”
2. Don’t tread too gently around vets because you assume everyone has experienced trauma.
“There’s no need to coddle vets,” says Amber Barno, a former OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopter pilot who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. “There’s this stigma that people need to watch what they say, and frankly, veterans get annoyed at over concern. Veterans come out with priceless skill sets, as well as experience — ask about that experience, what it was like to serve their country.”
Daniel Gade, 39, an active lieutenant colonel in the Army and a professor at the United States Military Academy, West Point, says it’s important not to assume that all returning service members have PTSD or emotional problems just because they’ve served, even if they’ve served in direct fire combat. “One of the problems in society is our mentality of extremes — that veterans are maimed and need to be treated with kid gloves or that they’re all heroes,” he says. “Most of them are neither heroes nor victims, so treating them as normal human beings would be very useful.”
3. Don’t ask them to put difficult experiences behind them.
Being impatient is never helpful, warns Edna Foa, a clinical psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “Don’t say things like, ‘Well, you’re back here. Iraq or Afghanistan is behind you — there are no dangers here, so put that all behind you,’” she says. If the returning soldier has PTSD, it’s a disorder. “It’s not up to a patient’s will to get over it.”
4. Don’t snap — even if they snap.
“Don’t take things personally if they don’t want to talk about something,” says William Hansen, 46, who has served as a truck commander and squad leader in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Egypt with the Army. “It’s not about you, or your relationship. It takes five to six months for a person back from combat to get their bearings about them. So act natural toward them, act human. Many vets are struggling with what to say, and a lot of times they’ll say the wrong things at the wrong time. If you snap, they’ll stop talking — and stop reaching out.”
5. Don’t describe their experience for them.
“Avoid judgmental comments, like, ‘What you had to do was awful,’” says Capt. Wanda Finch, a division chief and program manager at the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury. Finch is also a representative for the Real Warriors Campaign, a multimedia public awareness effort designed to encourage help-seeking behavior among service members, veterans and their families. “You might think it’s sympathetic, but we want to stay away from taglines like, ‘War is hell,’ or other clichés.”
What to Say
1. Ask before throwing a welcome-home party.
“When they’re ready, or even before they return, ask how they would feel about a small, welcome-home gathering of close friends,” says Jamie Lynn De Coster, 31, who deployed to the Arabian Gulf, South China Sea, Iraq and Afghanistan, among other places, with the U.S. Navy. “Family and friends often want to gather around the returning service member, celebrate their return and just want to be near them. But the truth is, we don’t want the Budweiser parade. Look at the soldier’s face in that commercial — my veteran friends and I interpreted that not as happy surprise, but as being totally overwhelmed.”
2. Give updates on fellow troops from a vet’s unit.
“Keep in mind that the majority of a veteran’s unit is still going to be in combat if he gets injured and sent home,” says Michael Schlitz, 37, a Purple Heart recipient who lost both hands and the vision in his left eye when a propane tank exploded during a road-clearing mission in southern Baghdad in 2007. The Army veteran spent six months in the intensive care unit and an additional four months in the burn ward while recovering from his injuries. “Vets are going to want to hear how their guys are doing. They still wish they could be with them. But because they’re not there, they’re going to want to make sure people are watching their backs, that they’re getting what they need.”
3. Dole out the tough love when necessary.
“If you happen to reach a point where a guy is laying in bed, seven days a week, not doing anything, someone’s got to step in, slap him upside the head and say, ‘You’re still alive, you go forward and live for the people who don’t have that opportunity,’” says Tommy Clack, 67, a triple amputee and Vietnam War veteran.
4. Ask detailed questions relating to that individual.
“I don’t like when people ask, ‘What was it like?’ as if there’s a single answer that one individual could give that would cover the experience of everyone,” says David Eisler, 29, an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran. “It’s not meant as a stupid question, but it feels like quite the burden to answer for every single vet, especially if you’re being approached by a stranger. Start with more general questions — what did you do? when did you serve? — when talking to veterans you don’t already know.”
5. Go beyond saying, “Thank you for your service.”
“I’ve heard some veterans don’t like when civilians tell them, ‘Thank you for your service,’” says Liguori of Unite US. “It’s not offensive to them, but it creates a barrier, like civilians can just say thank you and it’s enough. Many vets are leaving the service and coming home from overseas struggling with unemployment or just not knowing what they want to do after the uniform. It’s hard for a guy who shot a machine gun for 15 months to come back home and see how shooting a machine gun applies to digital marketing. Veterans are finding it challenging to really transition to civilian life. They would rather hear, ‘Thank you for your service. How can I help you?’ since that second part gives civilians a way to find out how they can help.”
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