So it’s Veteran’s Day, a chance to have a Federal Holiday, get a free meal from local restaurant, and then go about my day. Sadly, that’s how I spend most Veteran’s Days. What I should be doing is talking to more people about what it means to be a Veteran, and try to dispel the myths that surround us. Most people are real weird about talking to me in uniform, almost like I’m some mythical unicorn demi-god creature that you should worship at a distance.
Trust me, I’m not.
I encourage everyone reading this to find a veteran and talk to them. Whether it’s the young kid in uniform in the airport or an older lady in a VA hospital, please, go and speak to your veterans. To give you a hand, here are the best questions I can think of for you to ask:
#1. Ask us why we joined
Seriously, this is the best question ever. I even ask this of every Sailor coming to my command. Veterans are a cross section of society, and we all join for different reasons. Sometimes it’s money, sometimes it’s patriotism, and sometimes it’s to avoid working in a dead end job at the local gas station. Some of these stories might sound familiar to you. When you ask a veteran why they joined, you get a chance to hear their real story, and it helps personalize their experience for you.
#2. Ask what the best and worst place they were assigned to
I tell people that I was stationed in Hawaii, and almost everyone says “That must be great.” Except that it wasn’t. I had a crappy boss (who got fired), darn near got skin cancer, my wife had two miscarriages, local bums destroyed the places I liked to go to, and more than a few local islanders let me know I wasn’t the right color. I gag whenever someone says they would retire in Hawaii.
Military members get assigned all over the world, and yet most of us are happy to return to America. We realize quickly that visiting a place is very different from actually living there. Instead of assuming that we loved every tropical place we were assigned, ask us what the best and worst places were. You might be surprised, and it gives us a chance to be honest about how living abroad really is.
#3. Ask us about overcoming challenges
I went through SERE school (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape). You know, the one where you get captured and tortured so that you learn to resist. It’s not what you think it is, but what I can say is that it taught me to be a stronger individual, and to hate being a victim. Most military training has at least a tacit focus on being strong, and veterans aren’t exactly known for advertising weakness.
If you want a veteran to open up, ask him or her about a great obstacle they overcame. Maybe it was dealing with a crappy boss, or maybe it was learning to move forward after burying a fellow soldier. Veterans like to think about overcoming challenges, not being victimized, so asking the right question gets a great response.
#4. Ask us about the holidays
My wife gets extremely irritated on Facebook because during any holiday time, because everyone sends lovely pictures of their families all in one place. Holidays are hard on military families. Sometimes you eat turkey in the desert, or other times you celebrate Easter Mass and then fly over a war-torn country. I laugh at people who insist on doing something on a specific day of the year, because to me, holidays have become very flexible in terms of when they are celebrated.
If you ask a veteran how he or she celebrates holidays when deployed, it will start a good discussion. You’ll soon realize that we all have weird ways of staying connected to traditions even when away from home.
#5. Please tell us about you
I can’t stress this enough. Too often military families live in a bubble. We talk to other military members because we share a common bond, but it isn’t healthy long term. I often tell my Sailors to get out and talk to non-military people, because at a minimum they need to be reminded of the people that they swore to protect. It’s also unhealthy to stay in a bubble because too many veterans think they are so special and deserving of praise that they take on an almost demi-god thought process (see previous comment).
Military members need to talk to normal people…like you! I enjoy not talking about my job and just listening to the challenges other people face. It reminds me that the people I swore to protect are worth it. The international media loves to portray Americans as dumb idiots. I don’t think that is true. I’ve met hundreds of great Americans while traveling in uniform, and the overwhelming majority are good people. They remind me that the sacrifices I make are worth it to defend a population, country and way of life that I want to continue. Overall, it reminds me that they are Americans just like me, and we all bleed American, no matter our backgrounds.
This Veteran’s Day, don’t just thank a vet for his or her service. Talk to him or her. Ask a veteran real questions. Take a veteran out for coffee and hear their story. Give them a chance to regale you with a great sea story, then share a more realistic difficult story. Put a face to the term “veteran.” Even if it’s one person, your time and effort won’t go unnoticed, and will make a real difference in at least one person’s life.