We all want to honor our veterans. But what is Veterans Day if not a day to understand how to really, truly do that?
“Veterans don’t want to talk about their service,” I’m told.
“Wrong,” I say back. “Veterans want to talk about their service. They just don’t want to talk about their service with you.”
And there’s a reason for that.
We come to our veterans with a pile of preconceived ideas about how they are and how they feel. “Thank you for your service,” is paired with a million ideas we already have about who they are.
Statistics show that at least 20 veterans commit suicide a day, so we wonder if they are suicidal. PTSD is a big problem for many, so we wonder if they’re crazy. Sometimes veterans were in a position where they were shooting at people, so we wonder if they’ve ever killed someone. Many veterans are on the quiet side, so we wonder if they’re hardened and mean. Veterans sometimes end up homeless, so we wonder if they have somewhere to live and enough money. Female veterans and sexual assault have been in the news, so we wonder if they’ve ever assaulted or have been a victim. Military marriage is hard, so we wonder if they’ve ever been divorced or held on to a long term relationship.
War is, well, war — so we come to our veterans with a tone of pity instead of a posture of respect, honesty and curiosity.
But even beyond that, we make one huge, fatal mistake when we talk to our veterans: We don’t listen. We say “thank you for your service,” and call it a day. And then we wonder why we don’t know anything about our veterans or how we can really help them with whatever it is they actually need from us, their community.
What is Veterans Day? A day for listening.
I am convinced that the majority of veterans do want to talk about their service. But they only want to talk about it with someone who actually wants to hear them.
On this Veterans Day I ask you to do one, simply thing: listen.
When you talk to a veteran and say “thank you for your service,” ask a question if you can: “what was it like to serve?” And then, if it seems right, ask another. And another. And another. And now you are on the path to actually knowing a veteran.
We so often feel that there’s this giant disconnect between civilian communities and the veterans next door. We mull over ways to fix that — ways to effectively support those who really are in need of help, or simply show respect to others.
But before anything, we need to learn to listen to who they are and what they want and need from us. The answers might be surprising.
Happy Veterans Day. Listen.