War zone veterans are real life human beings. They are human beings that may very well have put themselves at immediate risk in the name of the United States of America. As such, they are deserving of our respect and understanding. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and common ignorance are likely the two main reasons returning warriors struggle making small talk with civilians.
Despite advances, PTSD is still a misunderstood disorder and it is not only courteous, but humane to be sensitive about it. Ignorance is an ugly word, but civilians need to accept that without being in a war zone, it is impossible to truly empathize or relate to someone who has. That said, our vets are tough, and it is possible to avoid dredging up something they’d rather not relive without coddling them.
Sounds like a tough line to walk, right? It can be at first, but to help, here is a list of things you should never say to a veteran and a short list of appropriate conversation starters.
Never ask a veteran:
“How many people have you killed?”
“How many people did you get to kill?”
“What was your experience like over there?'”
Rationale: These questions are possible and likely triggers for extreme PTSD symptoms. Simply bringing up such troubling subjects causes a person to relive those moments from their life. PTSD is not an outwardly visible issue even when you have a close or familial relationship. Just because you can’t visibly tell someone is suffering, that doesn’t mean everything is peachy. We can’t assume it’s easy to get over those experiences. One way to adhere to that is by not asking the above questions.
Never say to a veteran:
“Get over it.”
“I know how you feel.”
Rationale: Again, PTSD is a disorder, and it’s not up to afflicted individuals to put their issues aside. Also, empathy is a vital component of society, but comparing civilian life to combat can be frustrating to a returning warrior. For example, don’t compare sleep deprivation in a combat situation to staying up late from a crying baby. It sounds like a silly comparison on paper, but analogies like these can slip out in conversation. The underlying issues aren’t the same and it is more insulting than empathetic.
“I’m glad you made it home safely.”
“I’m glad nothing bad happened to you.”
Rationale: As mentioned before, PTSD it is not an outwardly-visible disorder. Telling a veteran that he or she made it back safe and sound is to overlook the internal, invisible damage they may have suffered. If the veteran is lucky enough to not suffer from PTSD, then these same comments will likely serve to remind them of the people they knew who didn’t make it back in such great shape. Either way, these comments are not your best bets for connecting with a war veteran.
Things you SHOULD say:
“How are you doing?”
“Where did you serve, and what did you do?” (and other specific detail-oriented questions)
And most importantly:
Be a good listener!
Rationale: Be nice; be grateful; but most of all, treat veterans like regular people. In conversation, there’s no need to make insensitive or impolitic remarks. People generally like to share details of their experiences with those who show an interest and they like to be listened to. Remember, veterans, above all, are people and they appreciate being treated as such.