I found this, “How To Listen To Me, a Veteran,” on the website of the Office of Veterans and Military Personnel at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis and found it quite useful, not just for listening to veterans but for listening to anyone who has a difficult story to tell. Some of his points challenge the assumptions of a culture all-too-given to lionizing anything military while at the same time not taking the time to listen to what they say.
His point of view merits discussion. This, for instance: “If you make the offer to listen to me though, you had better mean it. You had better mean that you will sit with me and listen till I am done telling, not until you are bored or uncomfortable. Make the offer to listen to me, and then be prepared in case I decide you are the right person to tell my story to.” Those sentences alone are worth separate discussion and he has many of them. Respond in the comments, if you will.
How to Listen to Me, a Veteran
From Chaplain David Pyle, U.S. Army
Telling the stories about our military service helps, but we veterans are taught that it does not. Almost every program for helping veterans come to terms with their military service is based upon learning to tell our stories, and yet the model of the veteran in our society is one of silence. Veterans have a cultural taboo against telling others what “it was like”, either because we are afraid of being judged, or because we are afraid of how those we care about might be affected by our military experiences. The healing found in telling our stories to our loved ones is that they are then included in the path we have walked, not separated from it and from us. The healing found in telling our stories to others in our lives is that someone else carries a little of our load, perhaps someone we will never see again. The healing found in telling our stories to fellow veterans is that we learn others are walking the path with us. Through the telling, we begin to find meaning in how we walked the path of the warrior. We come home, come back to the tribe, by telling our stories, and for that we need someone to listen.
My experience in the military was unique. There is no simple guide to listening to veterans, because each of us is different. We were different people before we joined the military, and we are different people now that we are home. We each did different things… some of us were in combat and some of us were not. The experience of an infantryman on the beaches of Normandy is different than that of an infantryman in the jungles of Vietnam. Each of us had that deadly moment of awareness, when we filled out a form listing our next of kin. We knew we could die and that we might have to kill, but we reacted to that knowledge differently. Even if we never saw combat, we lived every day with the reality that we might be killed, or kill others someday. Forget what you might think you know about what it is like to be a veteran, what your grandfather, a movie, or next door neighbor told you, and listen to my story. I will tell you what it is like for me.
Not every veteran has PTSD, but every veteran has been affected by their service. No one walks away from the military the same as they were before they joined, even if they never made it though basic training. Though being in a war is enough to make anyone crazy, that does not mean that all of us who served, even those who served in the heaviest of combat, come back home likely to flip out and hurt ourselves or others at any moment. Many of us do need help, and that help always begins with telling our story. If one of us is having such a hard time that it is significantly impacting our lives (we cannot sleep, we are drinking too much, we cannot keep a job, we are thinking about hurting ourselves or others, etc.) then perhaps we need someone to tell our stories to with more training than you might have, like a chaplain, a minister, or a counselor. Otherwise, what we need is to realize how important it is to share the stories of our service. For that, we need you to listen.
I will pick who I want to listen to my story. It’s become a bit of a fad for some, and a selfish need for others, to want to listen to the stories of veterans. For some there is a bit of voyeurism, in wanting to see war through the eyes and pain of one who has been there. It is okay to let me know that you would be willing to listen to my story if I’m willing to tell it, but don’t be more intrusive than that. If you make the offer to listen to me though, you had better mean it. You had better mean that you will sit with me and listen till I am done telling, not until you are bored or uncomfortable. Make the offer to listen to me, and then be prepared in case I decide you are the right person to tell my story to.
Let go of what you think you know about the military and try to listen to my experience. No one in our culture escapes having images of the military, of war, of combat in our minds and hearts. Such images are in our movies, on our televisions, even in advertisements for everyday products. The news tells us about war, so do movie stars and politicians. If you want to listen to me, if you want to help me by witnessing my experience through my stories, then I need you to look closely at what you think you know about military service and war first. If you are a fellow veteran, then I need you to remember that your service was different than mine. If you have never been in the military, then think of all the movies you have seen, the stories you have heard, what you have imagined about the military or war… and put them aside. Don’t get rid of them, for they are part of you. Just try to listen to me through new ears, so you can hear me in a deeper way.
Let me tell you what my military service has meant, not the other way around. I spent my years in the military with politicians, commanders, and others telling me what the “meaning” of my experience was, and I don’t need that anymore. Now I have the power to decide what my military experience means for myself. You may not like or agree with what I have to say. You may think I am hurting myself with what I have come to believe. You have every right to think that, I’m just asking you not to force your opinion on me. If you listen long enough I’ll probably ask you what you think, so wait. That means you don’t call me a hero, you don’t call me a villain, you don’t tell me that someone else was responsible. You let me decide who I am, who I have become, and you don’t argue with me about it until I tell you that you can. I need you to listen so I can hear the meanings for myself.
Invite me to share my experience with you, and then just wait… it may take me awhile. Let me know that you are not only willing to listen, but that you want to listen. Let me know that nothing I say will make you think less of me. Let me know that you won’t tell me what to think or feel about my military service… and then back off. It may take me awhile to trust you. It may take me awhile to trust myself. Just knowing that someone is willing to listen is healing. It might take me months, it might take me years to get to the place where I can tell the stories of my service. I might call you twenty years later and ask if you are still willing to listen. Whenever it happens, I’m trusting you to mean what you said, to make the time to hear my stories. It has taken a lot for me to be willing to tell them. Let me know, from the very beginning, that you will wait till I am ready.
Let me choose what stories to tell you, and don’t worry if they are just about the good times. No matter what I choose to tell you, I’m thinking about everything that happened to me. When I tell you about the beautiful woman I met at a dance before I shipped out, I’m still thinking about the woman I saw dead who reminded me of her. You may not hear that part of the story, but it is there for me, and I’m learning about it in the telling. I may tell you about how hot it was in the desert, and I’m still thinking about how cold the metal on my friend’s transfer case felt as I loaded it, draped in a flag, onto a waiting airplane. I may tell you about how wonderful it was to see my children when I got home, and I’m thinking about the night I spent staring at my rifle, or the woman who called me a baby-killer the day after I got home, in the grocery store line. Trust that there is more to the story than you are hearing, and that I am hearing it all. If you listen long enough, I’ll tell you more of the not-so-good stories, because by telling the good stories the not-so-good ones become more real to me.
Ask me questions about what you don’t understand, and I’ll teach us both what’s important. If you don’t understand something, ask. We veterans use a lot of words that civilians don’t hear often, like “frag” or “platoon”. By asking about what you don’t understand, you may lead us both to a deeper understanding of why those things are important, or you may give us some space to talk about something more comfortable. I can tell you what a claymore mine is, and what it does, how you emplace it… and be thinking about what it was like to see one go off one day, when my buddy was not ready. I can tell you who the NVA were, and remember the day I killed one. I can tell you how the different units moved during the Battle of the Bulge, and be feeling the mud squeezing through the hole in my boots, and how miserable and frightened I was. I may be able to tell you those stories, to share the emotions, and I may not. But ask questions about what you don’t understand, and stay away from questions about how something “made me feel”. Stick to the who, what, when, and where, and let me think about the how’s and the why’s.
Don’t be afraid if the story becomes deep or if I get emotional, just keep listening. I’m not going to take you anywhere I can’t go myself. You are not going to hurt me by listening to me. In fact, I’m probably going to worry that I am somehow damaging you by having you listen. I may cry, in part because those emotions have been inside for a long time, and by listening to me well you may give me permission to express them. I may be angry, I may be afraid, I may be sad. I may have some grief I’ve never been able to tell anyone about. I may show no emotion at all. Don’t tell me its okay to cry or to feel… just be there. Just listen. If I’m not saying anything, just sit with me in silence. If you think it is over your head, what I am feeling, then you may offer to go with me to see someone else, a counselor, a minister, or a chaplain. Don’t be surprised if I say no… and don’t be surprised if I say yes. And don’t discount yourself. We all feel emotions, so you listening and being with me may be just what I need. Let me feel what I feel, even if it seems to be nothing, and just stay with me. If I feel safe enough with you to be angry or sad, to rage or tremble… then I trust you.
Admit to yourself that listening to my stories, and the stories of other veterans will change you. Listening to me may be hard. It may be challenging to just listen, without judgments or trying to fix anything. If you really listen, and if I can trust you enough to really share my stories, we will both become different people. You will have given me the gift of carrying part of my burden, of sharing some of what I carry. In that way, though we may never see each other again, you will be my comrade. Carrying some of my pack will make you a different person. You may see the world a little differently, when the news talks about war or soldiers it may no longer be impersonal to you. You may look around and see the true costs in lives and in pain that our society rests upon. I don’t know what that will mean for you. I don’t know how carrying part of my pack will affect you. I only know that it will, and I hope and pray that you find someone that you can share your burden with.