I wear the scars of my service in Iraq on my face.
While on a routine combat patrol in 2006 as a civil affairs team leader with a Marine infantry battalion, I was shot in the head by a sniper — the bullet tore apart my jaw and the lower half of my face. Although I was initially thought to have been killed instantly, I survived, thanks to the heroic actions of several Marines and an incredible Navy corpsman, although I look a little different now.
I’ve adjusted to my new appearance, but not everyone else has. I’m a confident guy with a loving wife who has walked with me every step of the way through my recovery, so I can brush off the occasional stranger whose glance lasts a little longer than it should. But sometimes interactions with otherwise well-meaning people get on my nerves.
You can tell when you’re talking to someone that they’re thinking about your wounds. It comes up in subtle ways. And frankly, while I know that they usually mean no harm, sometimes it’s annoying, because it distracts from the topics I’d like to talk about, whether that’s my latest business venture or just a comment about the weather this week.
I consult for a number of companies and organizations seeking to recruit veterans, and as part of that work, I’ve trained many civilians on how to speak to and engage with current and former members of the military. But as we continue, as a society, to address the challenges facing those who’ve sacrificed for this country, I think it would be helpful for the general public to have a better sense of the etiquette for talking to a wounded vet. Here are a few things people should know:
Don’t pity us. Treat us like everyone else.
We appreciate compassion, but we don’t need pity. Those of us who’ve worn the uniform signed up knowing we could be sent to war and possibly wounded or killed. Most combat veterans I know, even those who’ve been severely wounded, are thankful to be alive and they’re thinking about the same things their fellow Americans do from day to day: our jobs, the long line at the supermarket, picking up kids from soccer practice, etc.
Don’t bring up PTSD. Ask us about our day.
We may be dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. Or not. But PTSD isn’t just a condition that affects service members. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 11 to 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans will experience PTSD, but consider that 7 to 8 percent of the population as a whole will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. Either way, it’s not necessarily something we want to discuss until we know you better. Or ever. Instead, ask us how we’re doing or, “How’s your day?” just like you would anyone else.
Don’t make promises. Make friends.
In recent years, combat vets often met politicians and business leaders while in recovery. They left us a mountain of business cards and many made promises, but in plenty of instances, when we needed a job later, not all of them were there for us. Instead of making promises, just try to get to know us as a friend or potential colleague.
Don’t assume we’re helpless. Let us help you.
We may be wounded, but we’re pretty tough. We don’t need you to make ostentatious displays out of helping those of us with mobility challenges when we’re going through a doorway or up a flight of stairs. Instead, try to think about ways we might help you, considering all the different balls we have had to keep in the air throughout our long recoveries. Wounded warriors are resilient, experienced and smart. It’d be a wise move to hire us.
Don’t ignore our caregivers. Involve them in the conversation.
We’re just one member of a team. Very few wounded warriors are able to have successful recoveries without our family and friends. My wife, for example, had to drop everything in her life for me because I needed full-time care — she helped clothe and bathe me, monitored my medications, encouraged me to seek PTSD counseling, motivated me and showed me a light at the end of the tunnel. Make sure that when you’re communicating with us that you include caregivers in the conversation.
If these five rules seem like too much, then condense it to this: When in doubt, treat us like you would treat anyone else. Remember that although our combat wounds are a part of who we are, they don’t define us.
Yes, I’m a wounded veteran. But I’m also an experienced lawyer, a Marine, a national security expert, a motivational speaker, an entrepreneur and a husband. If the only thing you’re thinking about when you talk to me is the first thing on that list, you’re going to miss out on the rest of me.
At the very least, do it for yourself. In a professional setting, in particular, approaching a wounded veteran as a whole person and as a peer — taking advantage of our skills — could be what helps your business land that next deal.