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Essay

Things To Say And Not To Say To A Vet

Jason Moon, an Iraq War vet, talks to guest host Sean Cole about the seven things people say to veterans that alienate and anger them. He wrote this essay.

By Jason Moon

The way we think about PTSD is communicated in the way we talk about it, in the way we talk to veterans, and the way we talk to veterans - believe it or not - directly reflects their ability to get help. Thinking of how I can help people understand how to talk to veterans, I came up with seven simple things that you should never say to a veteran.

1) You should never say to a veteran, how many people did you get to kill? What was it like over there? Tell me about your war experience. What is the fundamental driving force of PTSD? The re-experiencing of a trauma. What do you think happens to a veteran when you say, what was it like over there? Their mind goes right back to the combat zone, they re-experience the trauma, they retrigger the hyper vigilance and they begin to isolate again and after enough civilians have said that, they begin that is not the conversation they can have with civilians.

2) This one I put on the list cause it just really makes me angry.  I have had people come up to me and say, you know, I didn’t enlist after 9/11, but if I did I would’ve been a ranger sniper high speed – and I would’ve had fifty kills and I wouldn’t have PTSD and I have to remind them that before you can be any of those things, which are all different things, you have to sign your name – it says I swear to defend my constitution and my country from enemies both foreign and domestic and it seems like a simple naïve masculine way to do things, but it’s not. In this country we honor our veterans and on veterans day especially we honor them and what this is is no less than an attempt to steal that honor – to get all the honor by thinking of what they would have done without having to go through any of the—that terrible experience that veterans have to go to get that. So we don’t say what we would have done.

3) These are gonna go from obvious to less so obvious. Sometimes, when it comes to PTSD in veterans, we want to be in the know, right? Nobody likes to be ignorant and not know, so I’ve heard this story a lot, we say, you know, my friend who lives down the street, he went to Iraq and he’s not doing so well. And they want somehow show that they know about my PTSD because Bob that works three cubicles down from them has PTSD, and so unless you live with someone who has PTSD, you have a spouse, son, daughter, mother – you’re intimately connected, just accept your ignorance. Only by saying I don’t know about PTSD am I able to tell you about it, so it’s just wise to just accept that you're not aware of the military experience. In fact, I can tell you that many veterans specifically fought so that you wouldn’t have to know what it’s like to be in a war, to protect you from that.

4) You don’t say I'’m glad you made it home okay. I’m glad you made it home safe – I’m glad nothing bad happened to you.' When you look at me you see that I have all my limbs, all my fingers, I can see, I look perfectly healthy. You can't tell that I have PTSD just by looking—you can’t tell that I regularly get two to four hours of sleep a night, that I have nightmares almost every night, that I have anxiety attacks and that I’ve tried to take my own life—you cant see traumatic brain injury, you cant see military sexual trauma and you cant see PTSD. And when you say to someone, I’m glad you made it home uninjured, you reinforce in their mind that we do not honor the invisible. 

5) Oftentimes we say to veterans, 'why don’t you just get over it? Just get over it. Put it behind you.' And what people fail to realize is that this is a real physical change in the mind of veterans. It is not something that you can simply get over – or forget or put in the past, so we don’t say that.

6) This is a hard one. It’s human nature, if I have lost a dear friend, I may empathize with you – I may come to you and say 'I know how you feel, I’ve been through the same experience.' When I tell someone that I’ve gone three days without sleep and they say, 'you know, when I was in college studying for my exams I had to cram and I was up for like two days straight.' When we compare the symptoms, we’re also comparing the underlying cause of the symptoms and because civilians can never know and will never experience that pain and that trauma of war we must resist the urge to empathize

7) This is the last and the most important one and the most hard one for people to get. You should never, ever ever offer a veteran help unless you are 100 percent sure that you can follow through. Because of our warrior training, because we’re trained to be tough, we do not reach out until we are in absolute crisis mode. And so if you tell someone, any time you need to talk – give me a call. And when that phone rings at 2 o’clock, or they need a ride across county to get to the VA, across the city, across the state, across the country, if you can't follow through, if you do not pick up that phone when it rings, at 3 oclock in the morning when they need to talk, I can almost guarantee you it will be the last time that phone rings.

So now we’ll talk about what do we say to veterans. How do we invite conversation?

1) We say, 'welcome home'

2) We say 'thank you for your service.' Now not all veterans are proud of what they had to do in war – some veterans were asked to do horrible things in war, so we don’t say thank you – we say 'thank you for your service.' Because regardless of whether a veteran is proud or angry about their service, they’re willing to serve and we thank them for that.

3) And we remember that they’ve had a real physical change, if they have PTSD that this is not just in their head. These are not just memories, so we say 'how are you doing.' 

4) You say 'I’m sorry. I’m sorry that you’re suffering. I’m sorry that you have to go through this.'

5) Most importantly we listen. It’s something we don’t do very well in this country. I just learned this saying the other day – listening does not mean waiting for your turn to talk. Right? We listen without judgment, we listen without interjecting our politics, we listen without prodding for more information, we listen without judgment. Veterans have experienced more than most people, more trauma than most people with experience if they had ten lifetimes and when they feel that they cannot communicate with the civilian population they carry all that weight on their shoulders, but when they begin to listen as civilians and learn how to talk to veterans and let them speak at their own pace with the truth, we can carry a little bit of that burden, and each person that listens to a veteran, somehow they carry just a little bit of that piece and when we all carry this community is not as heavy.

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