9 Polite Ways to Answer Ignorant Civilian Questions


I don’t care for the term “civilian-military divide.” It infers an “us and them” mentality and I’d rather dedicate space to breaking down that wall. Still, considering less than eight-percent of 314 million Americans have even performed military service, I get that there is a disconnect.

And it’s one that is highlighted by the trivial or ill-informed comments people make to members of the military and their spouses. Maybe they mean well, but it doesn’t always come off that way. Still, we can be ambassadors and change perceptions one person at a time. Our attitude, what we say and how we respond to questions and comments, can help bridge the gap.

So tell us, what kinds of questions and comments have you received lately? Do any of these conversations sound familiar?

You’re lucky you receive free benefits for your whole family. Yes, Uncle Clyde, I’m grateful for Tricare especially when so many civilian families cannot afford healthcare. But is anything ever truly free? The spouse whose soldier comes home with severe PTSD, TBI, or missing limbs and needs extensive, indefinite medical care understands the hidden price.

I wish I too could stay at home with my kids. There are two sides to every coin. Many SAHM/SAHDs like being home with their kids, and many don’t have a choice.  Daycare is too expensive, but also many military spouses including those without children want to work (and even more have degrees) and still can’t find work … and no Jemma, it’s not just because of the current job market, either. You see, many employers….

How do you do it? I couldn’t live with my spouse being gone for so long, so often. MilSos, how do you answer this one? Do you have a polite way of saying that your spouse is doing a job some shouldn’t do, others can’t do and most wouldn’t do? Do you say that your soldier doing his or her job affords others the chance to have jobs that bring them home every night?

Don’t you worry about him being in a war zone? I couldn’t do it. I don’t tackle this one head-on. Instead, I relay my husband’s accounts about the advancements he’s witnessed with each (Iraqi) deployment. Females were treated like property and had no voice (and many still don’t). But now some are going to elementary school, pursuing higher education and others are even driving cars.

If only my husband would go away for a year. I need a break. I tell my story here. “Well Iris, absence can make the heart grow fonder, but it’s the quality not the quantity of the absence. During a 15-month deployment—on a chance phone call—my fiancé-soldier told me he was scheduled to fly to another location that morning. Hours later, CNN reported that a helicopter leaving his area had exploded, killing all soldiers on-board. I didn’t hear from him for five days.”

When is your husband going to get a real job? My husband’s mother used to ask this question often, especially when he deployed. Last September she called from overseas, “He in the Army 25-years now, enough is enough, Man,” she said in her island accent. She passed away a week later. I’d gladly field that question again and again if only she were still here.

If I could move every few years, I’d redecorate and explore new places. Here’s when I start making associations. Now remember, you can’t get a job and money is already tight. Also, you just PCSed to a rural town and the closest Walmart, entertainment or shopping is hours away, and its slim pickings on-base (okay, maybe a worst case scenario but it’s not always a bed-of-roses either). Be careful with redecorating too because that really cute vase you scored online, well, next PCS it might not make it.

The government shutdown doesn’t affect you anymore. Thankfully, soldiers’ paychecks are now protected and death benefits to families of the fallen were addressed. Recent news stories say that military paychecks will be on the line if the government defaults on its debt.

Also, many furloughed civilian employees are veterans and retirees themselves, more are our co-workers, friends and neighbors, and many live on a limited budget. Those in the midst of PCSing—their stuff may be stuck in transit. When the commissaries closed, it wrecked the family budget of hundreds of lower-enlisted soldiers.

In the military we ARE all one family—what affects one, affects all. An Air Force tech sergeant demonstrated that when he recently returned his paycheck saying he didn’t want it if his brothers and sisters had to go unpaid during the shutdown. He’s since launched an online campaign.

There aren’t soldiers in Iraq anymore and they’re leaving Afghanistan, too. They’ll all be home soon. “No Grandpa, sometimes a small element is kept in-country and servicemembers in all branches are currently stationed or deployed to hot zones all over the world…”

What other types of dialogues do you engage in to help change perceptions? What are some of difficult questions you’ve encountered and how did you answer them?


About the Author

Corinne Lincoln-Pinheiro
Corinne Lincoln-Pinheiro is a journalist by trade, a blogger, creative writing instructor and business owner. She has a Bachelor's in English and a Master's in Writing. She's written for various newspapers including Joint Base Lewis-McChord's The Ranger, the Airlifter, The Pacific Northwest Veterans, and two online magazines -- JBLM Spouses and JBLM Singles. Corinne writes for the Killeen Daily Herald newspaper (http://kdhnews.com/blogs/health_springs/), and her military blog (http://www.rankandfile.blog.com) profiles interviews, articles and editorials on issues surrounding military life. Her family is currently stationed at Fort Hood, TX.
  • sabrinacking

    The two questions that get to me are: How can he be so selfish? And: How can you be so strong?
    Neither question says anything about how we live our lives. The reality is, a life lead for meaning is often at odds with a life lead for happiness. Philosophers, Religious scholars, even Scientific research tells us that. In the first question it presumes my husband makes a conscience choice to pick his own calling. If you believe that, more power to you. We don’t. We believe God calls us to any vocation. In the second question, you are presuming I am strong or that I believe in divorce. Neither are also true. I don’t believe in divorce, and the only one strong here is God. It is only through the grace of God I can even stand up and walk around at this point, a career military marriage has been tough stuff on both of us. Those two questions, or rather presumptions are based in a worldview we don’t hold. Because of that they drive my crazy, because its impossible to articulate a response to people who don’t hold your same worldview.

  • Amanda

    I used to get the “Aren’t you afraid that he’ll cheat on you?” a lot. As much as it hurt that our families thought that little of us, all I ever said was “I trust him and that’s enough.”

  • the first mel

    I haven’t been bothered by anyone’s questions. I don’t think it’s a big deal because when someone asks a question it indicates that he/she would like to learn more. Just answer the question and move on. I’m sure I’ve asked some seemingly ignorant questions in my time and if someone responded to me in a condescending or sarcastic manner I would keep all future contact with that person at a minimum, if at all.

  • BethV

    The ones who wonder if I am going with him . . . do they really think that?? Or they’ve heard that “some of thise places” have great shopping. Really – unless they are directly involved with the military or have family members who are — a good number do not have a clue :(

  • Sweet

    The best clueless comments were from my daughter’s high school age friends when we PCS’d: Girl: “Where do you live now? I don’t understand. Do you live in the barracks with your Dad?” Guy: ” Your Dad gets PAID to be a Soldier? I thought we had an all volunteer force!” Third runner up: Much Younger than My Soldier Family member:” I couldn’t do all that running, and push ups and sit ups!”

  • TaKiere

    The above questions don’t bother me too much, but I guess I haven’t been asked that many as my husband is in the Naval medical corps. However, I was told by a visiting friend, after we had just bumped into some marines we know: “I just feel so uncomfortable being around people who I know can kill me!” ARG! That bugged me.

  • faithfull4him

    With every military relocation I always have to explain to coworkers, strangers and friends 1) how my hubby is a Navy hospital corpsman attached to a Marine unit; and 2) where the actual base is out here since we’re always stuck in small reserve centers that no local seem to know the whereabouts.

    • jen

      My favorite is when people ask..”oh so your husband is a medic”…nooooo that’s the Army but thanks for listening. It’s always fun trying to explain an 8404 to a civilian. My coworkers still call my husband a Marine despite the many times I have explained it to them. lol

      • HM! Gary Carvella

        The Marines cosider a Corpsman a Marine.

        • faithfull4him

          And my hubby would consider himself as Marine too. ;)

      • faithfull4him

        I’m so glad someone else understand where I’m coming from too! My hubby gets offended when he is called a medic for that reason.


    I left the Navy 36 years ago, but two of my sons joined the Marines. I still get silly questions, but except for the obviously moronic and nasty ones (you know the ones I mean) they’re usually simply funny. I love the one about thinking a kid lives with his/her father in the barracks. Ignorant, but not particularly obnoxious. I agree that the questions are opportunities to educate. No one who hasn’t been there really understands. Hell, I was there and I don’t always understand. My son who finished his enlistment last October can attest to that. Treat it as the entertainment it so clearly is. Sometimes its the only entertainment you get these days.

  • The ones I have an issue with are those that pass judgement. They imply that system or myself are broken.
    My favorite responses are “I enjoy my independence” and “why worry about what God is in control of.” However, despite the fact that they work for 98.9% of the questions… I still get the ones related to pregnancy all the time.
    “Don’t you want kids? A little mini man when he’s not at home”
    “Why don’t you have kids?”
    “Is there something wrong?”
    “You don’t want to wait too long.”
    “Don’t you want someone to remember him by incase something happens?”
    “Why don’t you have kids, the military will pay for you to give birth to their future infantry, won’t they?”

    My oneliners rarely keep me from being bombarded with these. However the fact is that there are different types of parenting roles: I’m a teacher, we are registered foster parents, and have even hosted exchange students. No, none of these are because there is anything wrong with me, it’s just where we are at in life. My husband wants to be around as much as possible and we both enjoy our professions. If something, God forbid, were to happen to him… I wouldn’t want to put a child through that. I know that this may come across as harsh but I would also want to be free to grieve and move on as well. Okay, I’m done with my rate for now.

    • faithfull4him

      As one who has suffered from infertility and pregnancy loss for the past three years, I can understand how you feel. I work with children doing a summer program at an education center, so I get asked these kinds of questions a lot. I find it rewarding to work with children and volunteer my time in my community doing all kinds of things. There are many ways to have a fulfilling life as a military spouse. :)

  • jojo613

    The ones that get to me are the political ones:

    – Why are you in the military when we are in an unjust war?

    and (when I was active duty)

    – Did you ever kill anyone?

  • Guest

    I never thought civilians questions were ignorant. I always thought maybe the military itself contributes to the military-civilian divide because we are so insulated in our own little world.

    • jaydark

      I agree. I had alot of those same assumptions/misconceptions before I was in the military. If you’ve never been, you don’t know. We shouldn’t ridicule them.

  • Tabitha

    I always get asked at work by customers and co-workers “How do you do it?” My response is “I love him. That’s how I do it.” But also, I tell them he loves what he does so that helps tremendously. I had one customer give me a look and ask if we stay faithful to each other. I even had my OB-GYN ask me that the other day!? Wanted to punch them both, but I understood where my doctor was coming from compared to the nosy customer. Anyway, I try not to scoff too much at the asinine questions and remarks because I understand that they don’t know what it’s like and are just curious…..sometimes. (Most are just being nosy and plain rude such as the customer above). But for those who truly want to understand, I try to explain as best I can what the lifestyle is like. (I emphasize it is NOT a fairy tale of rainbows and unicorns traveling around the world with the significant other 24/7). It usually ends with a deeper appreciation from both sides.

  • Chrissy

    When people ask how I deal with deployments, absences and such, and that they could never do it, I always just say “you’d be surprised at the things you can do for those that you love”. That usually gets their wheels turning :)

    • jacey_eckhart

      that is a PERFECT answer. Well done, Chrisssy. I’m totally stealing that from you and using it as my very own!

  • ProudAFWife

    I’ve been asked the: “How on earth can you live with him being gone and sometimes not hearing from him?” question many times, and I have gained a new understanding about myself and how I DO deal with it as I’ve reflected on this question over the years.
    Now my answer is quite simple…”It’s quite simple, so long as I always remember that I’m not the one who cannot sleep in our bed, watch what I’d like on tv, go for a drive when I want..to where I’d like…and be gone for as long as I’d like, I’m not the one who cannot be there with friends and family for parties. As long as I remember that I’m not the one sacrificing all the comforts of home to be in a foreign country where the majority of the citizens really don’t like me just because I’m American and do a job that some people cannot do and wouldn’t do even if they could, so that all the people I know and many of those I don’t know can sleep at home at night and not have to be away from their families.” So, yeah..that’s how come I ‘live” with him being deployed..

  • crusty

    I’ve been asked: Why be part of an institution that discriminates against you by moving you to a state where your marriage isn’t valid at state level?