Paula J. Caplan Ph.D.

Science Isn't Golden

What About Those Who Are Alive?

How Every Nonveteran Can Help a Veteran in One of A Huge Number of Ways

Posted Nov 09, 2014

First published November 9, 2014, at

With Veterans Day coming up on Tuesday, a woman veteran posted on Facebook a heartfelt plea that nonveterans stop acting as though this is Memorial Day and focus on the help and support that living veterans need and deserve. I second that with all my heart.

The point of today's essay is to provide a huge array of ways that any nonveteran can be of help. If you have the impression that the United States is filled with more help for veterans than they can possibly use, you are wrong. There is a lot of flagwaving, and many organizations claim to help veterans but do very little. Most important is a sad state of affairs reflected on my Psychology Today blog. In the three years of my writing essays there, I have posted maybe 150 or so, about 20 of which are related in various ways to veterans, and the rest of which are about a huge range of subjects, from personal stories to Supreme Court decisions to matters of human suffering and women's issues. With one exception, any time I have posted an essay about anything related to veterans, it has received between 30% and only 3% the number of readers of any other subject about which I have written. When I saw these dismal statistics, showing nonveterans aversion even to reading about veterans, I tried a little experiment. The next essay I wrote about veterans, I took care not to reveal in the headline whom it was about, calling it "Healing Without Harming." Within a couple of days, that essay got as many readers as when I write about someone other than veterans.

I have learned that some nonveterans find it easier to think about veterans who have died, because they do not confront the dilemma of what they can do...or if there is anything they need to do. So often, because of the pernicious myth that being devastated by war or by having been sexually assaulted in the military means one is mentally ill, nonveterans say to me, "I know veterans could use some help, but they're mentally ill, and I am not a therapist, so there's nothing I can do." Nothing could be further from the truth. So what can each of us do? Any or all of the following:

(1) STOP saying that traumatized veterans (or even traumatized nonveterans) have mental illnesses. Since the widely-used term "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder" is simply a way of taking the deeply human reactions to trauma and instead classifying them as an official mental illness (PTSD resides in the manuals of psychiatric disorders), it is more accurate and far better to describe what happened, what the trauma was, and what the feelings and thoughts are that understandably resulted from the trauma. We learn this by listening to what the traumatized person tells us. And we refuse to add to their burden by calling them mentally ill, so instead of saying they have "PTSD," we say "They went through the hell of war" or "They were devastated when their sergeant raped them and escaped punishment, while the victim was accused of being mentally ill, a troublemaker, and not worthy to continue serve in the military." "PTSD" gives the impression that there is something different, weird, sick about the labeled person's reactions to the horror they have lived through. Let us refuse to participate in that way of causing harm.

(2) Realize that researchers have found that servicemembers and veterans are less likely to go to therapists than are people who have not served in the military and that the hordes of new therapists and tons of psychiatric drugs the military and Veterans Affairs have brought into their systems have failed to reduce the rates of veterans' suicides, homelessness, substance abuse, and family breakdown...and what this makes clear is that even if every one of those therapists is terrific and compassionate, and even if (we know this is untrue) every psychotropic pill was helpful and not at all harmful, at the very least, more is needed. The MORE comes in a huge array of alternative approaches that have been proven to be helpful and healing. At our "A Better Welcome Home" conference at Harvard Kennedy School, we made 28 five-minute videos of people from the Department of Defense, the Seattle VA, and throughout the private and volunteer sectors, each one describing a different alternative approach. You can see these videos at They range from physical exercise to meditation to working in the arts or doing volunteer work to having a service animal to finding an advocate for legal challenges. Every nonveteran can right this minute go to that site, click on three or four of the brief videos that are about subjects you personally love, and choose one of those ways to help. Attached to each video is the contact information for the person in that video, whom you are urged to get in touch with, and a list of several different ways that you can help with that approach.

(3) Make a commitment to simply taking a couple of hours to listen silent but with your whole heart to a veteran from any era. This is what my Welcome Johnny and Jane Home Project consists of, and you can read more about it at and can sign up right there to be a listener. Early research at Harvard Kennedy School and ongoing research reveals that veterans find the sessions to be helpful, even healing, and sometimes utterly life-transforming, and nonveteran listeners invariably report that it is positively transformative for them.

(4) Take two minutes to help make "Listen to a veteran" an idea planted in the hearts and mind of all Americans, so that each will think of this as their civic duty, by ordering a "Listen to a Veteran" t-shirt or bumper sticker at

©Copyright 2014 by Paula J. Caplan               All rights reserved

About the Author

Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D., a clinical and research psychologist, is an associate at Harvard University's DuBois Institute and former fellow in Harvard Kennedy School's Women and Public Policy Program.

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