Over the last 9 years, I have spent a lot of time volunteering with various veteran organizations, socializing with veteran friends, visiting the VA Hospital with my therapy dogs Liam and Leonidas, as well as teaching a Canine Connections class at that same VA. I have learned a lot about the individuals in the veteran community and at least a little about the veteran experience, but I may have learned even more about civilians: how we view and interact with the veteran community and, in my opinion, how we remain largely disconnected and naive.
It is not the duty of the military and veteran communities to reach out to civilians. It is our job to work to connect with and try to understand the individuals who volunteered to serve in our armed forces and the experiences that contribute to who they are now. That care, time, and effort on our part, is how we help veterans “come home” – that’s how we serve those who served.
The civilian approach to the veteran community often fails at genuine connection because it is built on platitudes that both puts veterans on a pedestal and conveniently keeps them at a distance. This sanitization of veterans and their experience is a kind of defense mechanism to protect us from facing the complexities of war and our accompanying fears. It glosses over things we can’t understand and helps us avoid the things that make us uncomfortable. Our focus on keeping war at an arm’s length keeps us from acknowledging the detrimental affects our distance has on veterans and keeps us from recognizing veterans’ experiences and potential struggles in any meaningful way. So even amidst almost constant public accolades, in reality we find ourselves waffling between ostracizing, idolizing, and fearing combat veterans.
We don’t connect effectively because we are inwardly focused on ourselves and our fears – even if subconsciously. A real change can occur when we become outwardly focused, when we are not as worried about ourselves as we are eager to reach out, empathize, learn, understand, and embrace. As Sebastian Junger describes beautifully in Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, the quality and depth of work a society does in welcoming home its veterans directly affects veterans’ physical and mental health and their ability to reintegrate successfully. I certainly can’t tell anyone how to connect with people, only that it is worth doing genuinely. In my experience, for civilians to connect genuinely with veterans it helps to be mindful of and avoid these 3 specific traps.
The 3 P’s: Pity, Pedestals, and Platitudes
This is one of the worst ways we work to force veterans and their experiences into a space that is comfortable for us. We need combat veterans to be pitiable so we can feel better welcoming them back into civil society. What if, *clutches pearls* they didn’t hate war? What if war didn’t break them? Are they normal? Are they safe? Can we trust them? Can we let them back in? Surely any normal person would be broken after an experience like that, so if you’re not broken… We fixate on the idea of the broken, damaged, pitiable war veteran because it lets us avoid any complex confrontation of war and different peoples’ different relationships with it. This is understandable to some degree, in that it is extremely difficult for us civilians to imagine anything like war, so it is difficult for us to understand the people who have been there. We can only draw from our experiences and being damaged by war is likely the easiest thing for many of us to imagine.
Putting veterans on pedestals puts them in a position where they are not allowed to be human. They are not allowed to make mistakes, feel emotions, struggle, or need help because they are under constant pressure to rise to unreasonable expectations. Labels like “hero” set veterans up for failure because a hero is assumed to exist solely for our benefit and without the burden of flaws. Feeling normal and feeling like one belongs is an important part of “coming home” and pedestals keep veterans separate from us. It also sets veterans up for something our society loves: the fall. We love live dramas to play out before our eyes, and veterans on pedestals are prime targets. One person’s struggles can be made heavier by playing out in the public eye and that can make it harder for the whole community of veterans that civilians tend to paint with a monolithic, broad brush.
Boy, do we love some camo stuff: American flag themed everything, yellow ribbon magnets, half time shenanigans, Heinz Warrior Ketchup, Salute to Service – there is certainly no shortage of opportunities for us civilians to be patriotic, and be seen being patriotic. The volume of our “patriotism” frees us from the hard work of really supporting the communities and individuals for which we have a great responsibility. “Thank you for your service” (book and movie links) is one thing, but so is reaching out to the local veteran groups in your community, from old timers to college students.
Your local VA has volunteer opportunities including social visits and events, music groups, animal therapy, and for the special people who can do it, hospice volunteers who do hard work to make sure no veteran dies alone. And outside of organized volunteering, you can patronize veteran businesses, hire veteran employees, support your employees who are still in the reserves, help the families of deployed service members, or help with the pets of deployed service members. We have been at war for a generation, and we are losing the last of our Greatest one. Have a meal, have a drink, share a story, listen, hug, laugh, listen, listen, listen. It is worth a thousand magnets. At least.