November 4, 2011

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.

The veterans said that just being given a chance to tell their stories and be listened to intently made it possible for them to speak, to feel respected and sometimes to say things they had never told anyone. Such listening makes the environment safe: Veterans know they will not be criticized or grilled — and the listener’s silence gives them permission to tell their stories in the way they choose.

For the civilians, the experience was transformative. Whether it was bonding over the sadness of losing a loved one, a sense of powerlessness in not being able to help someone in danger, or a shared understanding of the fragility of life, civilians who had thought they’d have nothing in common with veterans were surprised by how easily they could relate to their experiences.

When I began listening to veterans years ago, I discovered the power of this simple act. These veterans are the forward observers for the rest of us. They have encountered the most extreme situations, fought for their lives, seen buddies blown apart, killed other human beings and forged intense bonds with other service members. They have experienced the most powerful emotions — positive and negative — that anyone can have. All of that, combined with the honesty of the veterans who spoke to me, made these sessions sacred time.

An Iraq war veteran who was built like an NFL tackle told me that he had gone to Iraq to protect America, believed that he had liberated the Iraqis and would go back in a moment if he had not been so horribly injured in an attack there. I said nothing, just waited. And then he said, “But every night, I hear a woman scream.” He went on: “There was a woman across the street from us, and we thought she had dynamite and was going to kill us. So I killed her.” Again, I waited. He said, “And, um, it turned out she did have dynamite and was going to kill us.” Again, I maintained silent contact, keeping my eyes on him. “But every night I hear her scream, because, well, I wasn’t raised to kill.”

At some point in the sessions, the listeners would say, “If I had been through what you just described, I am sure that I would be feeling what you are feeling, and that is not a mental illness but a deeply human response to war.” In that single sentence, weight was lifted from the emotional rucksacks they had brought back from war. More veterans than I can count have treasured that statement and held it close.

As veterans open up in these listening sessions, they can more easily give voice to what else they need — from practical help finding jobs, shelter or medical care, to grappling with moral and existential crises, to turning from a culture of defense, attack and destruction to one of connection, creativity and care.

The next step for all of us is to make Veterans Day, 11/11/11, a National Day of Listening to Veterans, as one Vietnam vet suggested to me. If every civilian listens to one veteran’s story, we will become a war-literate nation, a country filled with people who know a great deal about what our 23 million veterans have been through and what many of them still live with. We will become a real community, where veterans know that their pain will be heard and understood.

outlook@washpost.com

Paula J. Caplan, a clinical and research psychologist, is a fellow in the Women in Public Policy Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She is the author of “When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans.”

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Psychologist Paula J. Caplan on how civilians and veterans can find common ground