“Thank you for your service.”

Civilians believe this is a respectful and appropriate way to acknowledge the sacrifice of those who have served in our armed forces. Yet many veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in Vietnam and earlier conflicts, find this gesture disappointing – even upsetting in some cases. Why? Some vets interpret this message as insincere if said merely in passing. Others suspect it just dampens civilian guilt for not having served. For others still, “Thank you for your service” signals a desire to end rather than begin a connection and dialogue.

Men and women who have served in America’s all-volunteer military undergo rigorous training, form profoundly important relationships, and have life-altering experiences of which they are often fiercely proud and intensely grateful. They test themselves deeply, live and work for something larger than themselves, and put their lives and health on the line. And yes, some vets have lived through the unthinkable, and struggle to recover. Memories of their service are rich in detail and emotion.

Yet too often, vets’ stories go unheard.

Instead of an awkward or hasty “thank you,” let’s lean in and pose real questions to veterans, or at least comment in a more thoughtful and personal way. In making time to listen to vets’ stories and the meaning they hold, our genuine interest and willingness to engage shines forth. Here are some examples:

  • What inspired you to serve in the military?
  • How did others respond to this decision?
  • What branch did you serve in, and what was your military occupation?
  • I’d love to hear a story about the people you served with?
  • What was a typical day like for you during your deployment?
  • How has your military training been useful to you at home?

When we speak like this, and then listen, we risk knowing a vet. We show the courage to form a relationship, and to be changed. So many of our returning service members feel distance and alienation from their civilian compatriots because they conclude that we really don’t want to know, or can’t understand how they feel. That’s why these simple acts of reaching out can make a real difference. When soldiers feel our interest in their story, when marines or sailors or airmen know they are actively valued through our gift of time and serious attention, bridges are built between two very separate worlds.

In these moments we demonstrate in action, rather than just words, our gratitude to the men and women who have fought in our names.

Robert Dingman, Ed.D., is an Associate Professor and Director of the Military and Veterans Psychology Concentration and Train Vets to Treat Vets program at William James College.

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