Psychologist Paula J. Caplan on how civilians and veterans can find common ground
We are a war-illiterate nation, and our ignorance can be obvious when civilians say to veterans: “Thank you for your service.” That simple phrase might seem like the best thing to say — it strikes us as easy, respectful and appreciative — but some veterans find the thank you disturbing, even if they realize that the speaker has good intentions.
While I was conducting a study at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government about civilians listening to veterans, one veteran of the war in Afghanistan told me: “They blurt out, ‘Thanks for your service,’ then run away. They don’t really want to know how it was for you.”
However, there is a productive way that every civilian can relate to veterans, no matter how we feel about war: We can simply listen to their stories. Veterans tend to suffer in isolation, and vast research shows that isolation worsens nearly every kind of emotional pain. We ignore the silent suffering of untold numbers of the 23 million American veterans while substance abuse, family breakdown, domestic violence, homelessness and suicide rates among their ranks steadily rise. Although only about 7 percent of Americans have served in the military, veterans account for 20 percent of suicides in this country. In addition, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that veterans make up about one-fifth of the homeless population. At a Harvard conference this past week on welcoming veterans home, Andrew McCawley, chief executive of the New England Center for Homeless Veterans, predicted that the numbers will rise even more when currently deployed service members return.
There are three reasons that veterans don’t offer up their tales from the front lines: They don’t want to upset civilians by telling us what they have seen and done; they are afraid we will think they are mentally ill; and they fear that if they tell us, we might not understand — and that the chasm between them and the rest of the community will become even greater.
Civilians tend not to ask veterans if they want to talk, because they fear that they won’t know what to do. In our profoundly psychiatrized society, many people mistakenly believe that only therapists know how to heal those veterans who are experiencing grief, fear, shame, anxiety, loss of innocence or moral anguish. Nothing could be further from the truth. The mere act of listening is often deeply healing.
The Kennedy School study that Heather Milkiewicz and I conducted this year involved having untrained civilians listen to veterans’ stories. They began the listening sessions by saying, “As an American whose government sent you to war, I take some responsibility for what you experienced at war and then trying to come home. So if you want to talk, I will listen for as long as you want to speak, and I will not judge.” We advised the civilians to avoid speaking the rest of the time and just actively listen with 100 percent of their attention. This allowed the veterans to say what they most needed to say, without having to respond to questions, interpretations or restatements of what they had said. We assured the civilian listeners that their total concentration would convey tremendous respect.