What not to say to a veteran

Cru Military November 11, 2015

Most people have good intentions when they reach out to a combat veteran and want to help and support. But sometimes they respond with questions or comments that should have been left unsaid. Perhaps they did not really think the comment or question all the way through.

As concerned Christians, we want to offer the veteran a safe, open, non-judgmental environment for them to talk about whatever they want to talk about in their own time. To help you cultivate this environment here is a selection of comments which can “close doors” and some alternative “door openers.”

Did you kill anyone? Did you see any dead bodies?  What was the nastiest or most disgusting thing you saw over there? (What would be the purpose of questions like this?)

Door Opener: I don’t know how I would react to the things you must have seen. Or, I cannot imagine the things you have gone through. Can you tell me how you are coping with them?

Are you glad to be home? (A veteran might hear, “Are you glad that you are no longer in a situation where you are getting shot at?” and wonder if you are concerned enough to think through what you are asking.)

Door Opener: I am glad you are home. Could you tell me about the conditions you had to endure while over there?

How are you doing? (Only ask this question when you are willing to stay and listen to the answer. Many times, the veteran doesn’t know how they are doing, know how to express it or feel safe to really express their feelings and state of mind. It is okay not to know what to do with the answer. You are not there to “fix” it for them but merely to give them a safe place to express their feelings. Sometimes just being there so the veteran can “debrief” can be enough.)

Door Opener: I won’t ask how you are doing and I will listen to you if you would like to talk about it. Could we meet for lunch tomorrow?

Did you see the news? There was a story about a troop loss in … (The veteran has “lived” the news and doesn’t need to relive it. Very likely they know people who are still fighting and dying.)

Door Opener: Do you hear from your friends that are still over there? Have you had a chance to connect with the guys you came home with?

Do you feel guilty about what you had to do over there? Do you think God could ever forgive you?  (Do you need to ask questions like this? They are loaded with judgment – yours, not God’s.  Just about every combat veteran has some measure of guilt. Those who make it home alive may have survivor’s guilt. Those who participated in direct combat had to make decisions that resulted in taking human life, possibly including the innocent. These veterans often have tremendous guilt and may not be able to find release. But God is an all-forgiving God and does not put a limit on His forgiveness. Find ways to help them accept the forgiveness God provided in Christ and to forgive themselves.)

Door Opener: I am glad you did what you had to do to come back to us. You may have areas where you cannot accept God’s forgiveness, what might those things be? Sometimes the things we beat ourselves up over are the things we feel God cannot forgive. What are some of the things you beat yourself up about?

Just be grateful you made it home alive. You didn’t die over there. You just need to get over it and be happy you are home now.  (Statements like this are often intentional door-closers and can be received like a slammed door in the face. Some combat veterans wish they had been killed in action along with their battle buddies. It makes coming home more difficult than actually being in combat. The veteran knows what is expected during the heat of battle. There is no training manual for coming home and there is no debriefing that can fully prepare the veteran for how difficult it might be. As a result, many desire to go back because there they know who they are and how to survive.)

Door Opener: Being back home is nothing like being over there, is it? What are some things that you are thankful you have now that you didn’t have over there?

(Thanks to Andi Westfall for her input and suggestions!)

Originally posted on Cru Military.

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