How to Support the Veterans in Your Life - Humantold
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How to Support the Veterans in Your Life

Danielle Louis, LMHC November 6, 2023

Patience, communication, active listening, and willingness to educate yourself about Veteran culture are just a few ways to support our dedicated service members.

In 2012, it was reported that 84% of Veterans felt misunderstood by civilians in their lives, with 71% of US civilian citizens reporting they had minimal understanding of Veterans (Pew Research Center, 2012). Oftentimes, it may go unrealized that we are not effectively showing up or supporting the Veterans in our life simply because we may not fully comprehend what their needs are or know how to approach them. In this article, we’ll explore ways you can begin to support the Veteran in your life in a focused and intentional way. Please know, any way you have shown up for them has mattered, and any act of support is better than none. Here are just a few tips on how to support the Veteran in your life, whether it is a co-worker, a loved one, or a neighbor.

Gain Understanding of Veteran Culture

The initial thing to remember is that the military is its own culture, it is not something one can fully understand without personal exposure and experience. Just like any other culture, there’s an expectation that is set and a pressure that comes along with it. There’s a language, an expectation of behaviors and conduct, an image, and a belief system. These cultural aspects of the military are interwoven and deeply internalized within Servicemembers during the entirety of their service. Asking them to shed these beliefs is extremely jarring and, if done at the wrong time, can cause exacerbated emotional distress, loneliness, or frustration, especially in the first year of transitioning out of their end-of-service to civilian life. 

There are resources available for civilians to become familiar with these hidden aspects of the military. An example is the Veteran Cultural Competence Training or Military Culture 101 class offered by Syracuse University. Trainings like this can be amazing for friends, family, coworkers, and employers, and supports an understanding of the emotions, intensive training and service, as well as the challenges that make up the history of your Veteran’s lives. You won’t have the lived experience, but you may come away with tools that can help you speak the language your loved one is trying to convey. 

Thank Them, Ask Them (but not everything) 

If you have recently met a Veteran and are trying to develop a rapport or relationship with them, you may initially have the urge to thank them for their service. Even though there is no right or wrong here, it is important to note that each Veteran is unique, and while some may appreciate this, some may feel uncomfortable with attention or recognition. Be aware of their reception to your gratitude, and if it feels well-received, don’t hesitate to ask them simple but meaningful follow-up questions like: “What branch did you serve in?” or, “What did you do during your service?” or “What was your job?”

What we do not want to ask of our Veterans are questions that are probing into painful and possibly traumatic experiences.  Do not ask “Did you kill someone?” or “Do you ever feel guilty?” Probing questions like “What did you see?” or “Do you have PTSD?” can be both harmful and unnecessary. Check in with yourself before asking questions with your Veteran and recognize if the question is simply for your curiosity or for a genuine interest of the wellbeing of who you are speaking with. 

Proactively Support Them, Don’t Wait to be Asked

Veterans spent their time in the Military serving, dedicating themselves, and showing up for their duty even when it wasn’t in their best interest. They have spent years of their lives sacrificing rather than tending to themselves, and many have continued to embody that persevering value well after their end of service. What this means for you as a supporter is that you may not know when the Veteran in your life could use support–they may not know how to ask, or they may feel weak or stigmatized for asking. Take the lead–reach out! Make the call, send the text, offer the meetup, or ask them if they need anything. 

You may often hear the answer, “No thank you, I don’t need anything.” However, it is more important to show you’re there to hopefully reduce any risk of feelings of isolation, rejection, or loneliness. Just because you hear “no” most days, doesn’t mean it won’t be a “yes” to your support on another. Don’t give up the Veterans in your life–they deserve your patience, willingness to learn how to be the best support system you can, and connection. 

Know Your Resources

As we mentioned above, we do not want you to ask personal or probing questions of our Veterans time served; however, there may be a time where you notice signs that are indicative of mental health concerns that you may need to ask questions to ensure their safety. Or, perhaps they trust you and disclose fears, suicidal ideations, or the need for resources to help them through a challenging time. Be prepared for this honor of being able to assist. Below are a few resources that are Veteran specific: 

Be You, Be Proud, Be Understanding

Inevitably, if you have a Veteran in your life, you are probably inexplicably proud of them and thankful for their service–don’t be afraid to continue expressing your pride in them long after their end of service. Remember the military is a large part of their identity and always will be, and yet you can support in enhancing other aspects of their identity when they are ready. Try not to rush the Veteran in your life to “change.” They have had to survive in scenarios many of us could not imagine, and by doing so had to fully embody an emotional and physical armor that is now both their identity as well as a form of survival. Don’t take away a sense of safety before others coping skills or support are introduced. 

Your patience, communication, active listening, and willingness to educate yourself and show up for them will surely put you in the right direction to support the Veteran in your life.

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