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What civilians get wrong when talking to vets

Jul 8, 2015

Smith says thanking veterans for their service can be a complicated sentiment.
Credit Flickr user istolethetv / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

As civilians it can be hard to know what to say or what to ask when you encounter veterans who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Often people will thank veterans for their service, but Erin Smith, a psychologist with the Veterans Administration Ann Arbor Healthcare system, says this can be a complicated statement for veterans to process.

"For some veterans it feels like when you're saying 'thank you for your service,' they volunteered, this is the job they trained for, they're part of a larger team. So being singled out by someone to say thank you for doing your job kinda feels awkward. They might not know what to say," Smith says.

Instead, Smith encourages people to just listen to veterans. Talk to them like you would anyone else and get to know them.

If you want to ask about their experiences overseas, Smith suggests asking why they joined, what they are most proud of doing while they were in the service, or what they enjoyed the most while they were in. 

Smith also says avoid asking voyeuristic questions to test the accuracy of popular culture. These people's lives aren't your entertainment, but they're attached to real memories she says.

Smith also advocates for not discussing politics. "The political decisions that are made have a very personal impact on these people's lives and the lives of the people that they served with and they care about."

"People can talk about politics in a very abstract way and it feeds the conception, I think, that veterans have that civilians don't really understand what's going on," she says.

The biggest takeaway, Smith says, is to respect the level of relationship you have with someone. Don’t ask questions you wouldn’t ask if they weren’t a veteran.

"Just listen to what they're willing to share and respect what they're willing to share."