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How to Talk to Veterans: Beyond the Thank You

The most common way to interact with someone who has served our country, also known as a Veteran, is to stop thanking us for our service. Another social norm has become the purchasing of meals for Veterans. Our family is still shocked and humbled every time this happens because serving our country is normal. For my family, in particular, I am the fourth generation military service member; we joke serving is in our blood. So, with so many social options on the table, how should you interact with Veterans this year?  NOT BY THANKING THEM!

One of the most awkward social situations today is when someone comes up and thanks you for the job you do. It is also one of the kindest. While I do enjoy watching my husband squirm under another person’s words of praise, it got me thinking. What if we could extend the conversation beyond a heartfelt given and awkwardly received, “thank you”?

This Veteran’s Day season I challenge the status quo and invite you to STOP thanking us for our service. Instead, ask us ABOUT our service, especially our Vietnam, Korean, and pre-9/11 service members. It is rare that I run into someone not willing to share one or two sentences about their experience. These moments are precious because they are sharing a part of their life not often talked about anymore but most likely lives with them daily.

How to talk to a Veteran

Sometimes a Veteran will share a memory of someone who died while serving their country. In these moments, the person listening may feel awkward and not know what to say. Don’t fret. Just listen. When we listen to a Veteran share about someone who gave their life in the service of our country, that person lives on. Their memory continues. It’s beautiful. A simple response of, “Thank you for sharing that person with me,” will cover you in those situations.

One of my favorite experiences was during a bike race remembering our Fallen Heroes. During that time, I spoke with so many Veterans who longed to feel a connection. They wanted to be seen and heard. It was important to them to share a few words with the next generation about their experience. Those conversations expanded my perspective on humanity.

While I was talking with Veterans, I wondered how many other people groups out there just want someone to say, “Tell me about your life.” While this invitation to go beyond the “thank you” may seem strange, it is a habit I think we all could learn. A habit of talking to someone beyond the surface level, even if we don’t know where the conversation will go; even if we don’t have obvious common ground with the other person.

I know I am asking a lot to invite a conversation with a Veteran. I hope you’ll be brave and begin this new habit. Let me know how it goes! Connect with me through my website and while you’re there, check out my new book: A Warriors Healing Journey.

Trish Russell

Trish’s journey to becoming a Trauma Advocate began in 2009 when she returned home from Afghanistan broken and unaware. Once she realized how much her brain had changed from her experience in a combat zone she committed to figuring out what life would look like with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It took 8 years for her to realize there would never be a cure; however, she has mastered exercises and techniques that have made it possible for her to design her new normal and live a life she’s proud to share with her family and friends.

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