Listening to Veterans

By Duane Shank 11-07-2011
Vietnam War Memorial, Washington, D.C. Image via Wiki Commons.
Vietnam War Memorial, Washington, D.C. Image via Wiki Commons.

It is often difficult, especially for those of us who opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to know what to say to veterans. Two pieces in Sunday's Washington Post offer some helpful guidance.

Phillip Carter, an Iraq war veteran and former deputy assistant secretary of defense, writes that when he first returned from Iraq, he resented people thanking him for his service. "I suspected that they were just trying to ease their guilt for not serving," Carter said.

But with time, he says, "There is genuine respect behind those thank yous, and after a while, I came to accept that. I also believe that this collective gratitude may serve a deeper purpose. Whether civilians fully realize it or not, the simple message of thanks sends a powerful message to veterans -- that the nation will take responsibility for our actions in her service. In some small way, this collective acceptance of responsibility helps veterans to transfer some of the psychological burdens of wartime service to society."

It is no contradiction for those of us who opposed the wars to nonetheless respect the dangers faced and sacrifices made by those who served -- and to do so without making value judgments about their service.

Another suggestion comes from Paula J. Caplan, a clinical and research psychologist and fellow in the Women in Public Policy Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government -- "We can simply listen to their stories," she says.

Caplan offers three reasons for why veterans don't often talk about their experiences: "They don't want to upset civilians by telling us what they have seen and done; they are afraid we will think they are mentally ill; and they fear that if they tell us, we might not understand - and that the chasm between them and the rest of the community will become even greater."

A study Caplan and a colleague conducted had civilians begin a conversation with veterans by saying, "As an American whose government sent you to war, I take some responsibility for what you experienced at war and then trying to come home. So if you want to talk, I will listen for as long as you want to speak, and I will not judge." And then just be quiet and listen.

Veterans who participated in Caplan's study said the experience of, "Being given a chance to tell their stories and be listened to made it possible for them to speak, to feel respected and sometimes to say things they had never told anyone. The vets knew they would not be criticized or grilled

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