Civilians sincerely want to learn how to better approach veterans today in America, and the solution is far simpler than it appears at face value.
Civilians can better understand the challenges and opportunities that veterans and military families face post service, including their experiences overseas, when we stop trying to cut corners to understanding and get to know one another. Our American citizenship, and our humanity connect us far more than our service separates us, but only if we have the courage to meet one another, one real conversation at a time.
It’s special when it happens. Two people are chatting, getting to know one another. Finally, one of the pair, the veteran of the two, looks at the other to pose a common question in the military community, “so, what branch did you serve in?”
This is one of my very favorite moments to witness.
Flushed and stumbling, the new friend submits, “Oh, I didn’t serve in the military”.
The veteran is surprised. Because of the comfort level, the veteran assumed she/ he had met a fellow service member.
The light in our veterans’ eyes tells the whole story. There is a realization of new beginnings, a subtle, yet critical step in the journey home. A new relationship is birthed between two people. When it grows, real conversations are had, real challenges are shared and real understanding is forged. A simple, yet authentic engagement, built upon the foundation of empathy, is the dawn of relationship and relationships lead to understanding.
The opposite scenario is disappointing, and sadly far too common.
As a veteran, I know that I am a statistical outlier of the population, part of the 1% who has born the burden of nearly 16 years of American conflict. Naturally, there is true interest on the part of my fellow Americans; I appreciate and encourage this, yet find myself baffled by the approach at times. Typically, when someone discovers that I am veteran, they want to jump right into the juicy set of “common veteran questions”.
I am often asked what I think about the following: the war, our geopolitical policies, my perspective on Islam and invariably, the question that so many Americans are burning to know the answer to: how many people did you kill?
Go ahead and cringe for a moment with me.
I cringe, literally, even as I write these words and sincerely hope to communicate why.
First, I am not an expert on some of these topics. My four rotations in Afghanistan did not anoint me as such. Next, I don’t even find interest in some of them, nor do I spend my time ruminating on them. Third, typically, I don’t know the person asking me these fairly personal questions. And finally, some of the questions are frankly insensitive at best and rude at worst. Perhaps civilians are just nervous and grasping?
We can make it very difficult for civilians to connect. We are a closed off and tight military family. For just as many of the preconceived notions that civilians may have, veterans come in with their own set of assumptions. I question if we would be talking if I wasn’t a veteran. I wonder about your objectives and become suspicious. Often, I find myself leaning back a bit, anticipating the common question that so many Americans are burning to ask me. This is not a one-way matter.
While the military has thread this exclusive bond by necessity, veterans can also do our part in connecting with our non-military compatriots as we return to civilian life.
For many years I have served as a leader with Team Red, White and Blue (Team RWB), a veteran serving nonprofit whose mission is to enrich the lives of America’s veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity. As “Eagles” (members), we encourage our veterans to engage with our families and communities and recommend them to tell their story.
Telling my story to my family and to other trusted civilians has been a huge part of my journey home and to wellness. In the process, I have learned that the problems that I and many other veterans face are not uniquely veteran problems, they are people problems.
Countless Americans have experienced the challenges of violence, loss, sadness, depression, grief, addiction, suicidal ideations and guilt.
I see this every day at The Tennyson Center for Children and know that while veterans do not own a monopoly on trauma, sadly, neither do adults.
In telling my story, I have also heard from my civilian friends. There are so many others who are trying do their best through parenthood, marriage, transition and the workplace to name a few. No longer am I a statistical anomaly, desperately hanging onto the fringes of our society; I am just a person, like you, an American trying to do my best every day.
But my story is just that, mine. It is my life. My story is not a commodity to be traded, nor purchased with the investment of a chance meeting or a moment in time. There are experiences I treasure and regrets I hold. Instants I would willingly relive in a breath and moments I painfully recall through tears. Situations I cannot forget, no matter how hard I try. Please understand these cannot be bought in a moment and know that I, in turn, will extend the same respect. This opportunity, this bridge we may forge together, I treasure. I get the chance to earn each piece of your story that you entrust me with, one meaningful moment at a time. I get to use my story, my life, to invite you in and begin our story.
I was a Soldier, an Infantryman, a Ranger and a Special Operator. I am a veteran. Some of these may be foreign to you. I am also a Spouse, a Parent, a Friend and a Leader. Most of these are relatable to all.
Above all things, I am a person. I am an American citizen. I’m no hero nor victim of the war, I’m an American who raised his hand to serve our great Nation. I treasure this and will gladly share my experiences when and where it is appropriate, if you give me time.
There is a tension in America today. We are connected strangers swimming in the vast openness of our social/ digital world. Hiding in plain sight, lobbing opinions into the faceless void, yet reticent to meaningfully engage with one another in an effort to truly seek understanding. This same tension exists between civilians as it does between veterans and civilians. So many of us hide behind our walls, eager to throw them down and be united, yet fearful to expose ourselves fully. Fearful to be seen fully. But it is so scary.
There is no shortcut to relationship. No playbook to authenticity. No hack to trust. It must be built, and building takes time and effort, not a simple checklist of questions.
So, when a civilian is faced with the opportunity to engage a veteran, I encourage you to consider introducing yourself with a warm smile and a handshake and ask that one question we all appreciate, “What’s your name?”
It’s simple, but that one question may begin the long and rewarding journey to a relationship, and the rest will unfold from there.
Brandon Young served as a US Army Ranger, and is the Chief Advancement Officer for the Tennyson Center for Children, which heals, stabilizes and reintegrates severely abused kids in Colorado.