How to Support Veterans With Loving Conversations
The do's and don'ts of talking with veterans about military experiences.
Posted Nov 11, 2020
Over the past 15 years, in my role as a clinical psychologist at various VA medical centers across the U.S., I've worked with thousands of veterans and their families and have witnessed firsthand how many struggle to have conversations about the veteran's military experiences.
Often family members are afraid of saying the wrong thing, pushing too hard, or worry that starting this conversation will open a Pandora's box of memories and harm the veteran.
While these conversations need to be handled with care, they do not have to be forbidden.
For Veteran's Day, I wanted to say thank you to veterans and their families by giving the gift of a healthy conversation and connection. Helping families grow closer through conversations in a healthy, loving, and non-judgmental way helps to challenge the stigma of having served in war.
7 Tips for Talking With Veterans About Military Experiences
1. Create a space to talk. Let the veteran know that all aspects of their life are important, the positive and the painful, and ask if they’d be willing to share about their military experiences.
Don’t expect this conversation to happen in public. Military experiences can be emotional, and people don’t want to be vulnerable in public. Consider sharing a meal together and allow the conversation to happen naturally. Or, do an activity together, like a walk or a hike, or working on a puzzle together, and then ask if they’d be willing to share.
2. Respect their boundaries. Don’t force the conversation. If you extend an invitation to talk and the veteran says no directly—“I’m not sharing this with you or anyone for that matter"—or indirectly by simply changing the subject, don’t force it. Respect their boundaries and drop it.
Veterans who have experienced war or other traumas often want to protect loved ones from the atrocities they witnessed or were a part of. If you have a sense that the veteran is holding back, respect that this is their boundary and don’t push it. It may take a few conversations for them to get out what they want to say, or they may never say it. This is their story to tell in their own way. Respect this.
3. Let them tell their own story. If the veteran is open to talking about military experiences, allow them to tell their own story and at their own pace. They might jump around, say things that confuse you, or mix up the timeline. Be open and let them talk. Often when people are talking about something emotional and painful, it can take time to get to the point. Give them the space and grace to ground themselves in the midst of what might have been a very chaotic time.
4. Be an active listener. This is the veteran’s opportunity to give, and your opportunity to receive. As they share experiences and memories, you may feel compelled to jump in, ask lots of questions, and try to clarify things. But being an active listener takes practice and is incredibly powerful in helping to build trust and connection.
DO be patient.
DON'T interrupt .
DO paraphrase on occasion [say, “Let me see if I have this right … " and then giving a summary.]
DON'T jump ahead and make assumptions.
DO give little prompts. (“Then what happened?” “What happened next?” “How was that for you?”)
DON'T ask “why” questions.
DO reflect meaningful and emotional points. (“Wow. This must have been so hard for you.” “What a complicated time in your life.” “How painful.”)
DON'T be an expert over the veteran’s experience. (“You should have done [this] instead. Things would have been so different.”)
DO be open and curious.
DON'T dig and pry.
DO be empathic. ("This must have been so hard for you." "You endured so much loss.” “This sounds like it was so overwhelming.”)
DON'T say things like, “This happened so long ago, you should be over it by now."
DO be appreciative. (“Thanks so much for sharing your experiences with me.” “I feel so much closer to you knowing more about your life.”)
DON'T end the conversation without acknowledging the veteran and how meaningful what they shared was.
5. Be empathic. Being empathic will help to reinforce the security of the bond between you and the veteran, and will help them find comfort in the midst of what might be a painful and scary conversation.
War is filled with unimaginable atrocities and casualties are quantified not only in lives, but in psyches and souls. Veterans who served in war are at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, panic attacks, substance use, relationship problems, estrangement from family—and the list goes on. If the veteran does take the risk to share their experiences, meet them with empathy.
It's equally important to acknowledge the incredible strength and resilience it takes to carry on in the midst of crisis and chaos, and the courage it takes to talk about deep pain and emotional turmoil—even 45, 65, or 75 years later.
6. Manage your own feelings as they come up. Some of the things the veteran shares may be hard to hear. You may be surprised to find yourself feeling anger, fear, disgust, sadness, or confusion. Whatever feelings come up for you, it’s important to acknowledge them, and manage them. But don’t let your reactions overshadow the veteran’s experience. As hard as it may be to hear some of their stories, these experiences were harder to have lived through.
7. Be accepting. If the veteran takes the risk to open up to you, meet them with love and acceptance. It's an incredibly vulnerable thing for a veteran to share their military experiences, especially if they experienced combat or other traumatic events. Military culture is well-known to be rigid, punitive, and shaming, especially when it comes to being vulnerable.
As a result, veterans might second guess themselves when talking about even the most minor military experience, not to mention something deeply painful. After all of the criticism and judgment the veteran may have faced, showing love and acceptance will help to validate their experience, build trust between you, and help to heal some very deep wounds.
If you're worried that a veteran may be experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, panic attacks, substance use, relationship problems, or any other mental health problem, please help them get care. One way to do this is by enrolling in their local VA and requesting mental health services. If you’re concerned that the veteran is in crisis, please call the Veteran’s Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255. To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.