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How to thank veterans for their service

By Staff | May 26, 2017

It shocked me the first time it happened. I was sitting in the living room of a World War II veteran and was interviewing him for a Memorial Day story. I felt humbled and grateful to hear his stories as he described the places he’d served, the hardships he had experienced, his fears and his perspective on life all these years later. What stunned me was his family’s reaction.

“That’s the first time I’ve heard most of those stories,” said his daughter who had stopped by during the interview.

This wouldn’t be the first time I’d have this experience. I’ve discovered that sometimes veterans won’t open up, even to loved ones, because the memories are too painful, but sometimes the reasons are much simpler. “I tried sharing these stories a few times, but my family didn’t really understand what I was talking about and didn’t ask any questions, so I just gave up,” one Iowa veteran told me. “I decided it would be easier to talk about these things with other veterans.”

This got me thinking-what’s the right way to talk to veterans, whether you want to thank them or hear more of their stories? If you’re like me, maybe you’re not even sure how to start the conversation.

That’s why I asked Marine Corps veterans James Nash and Jay Lippmeier for their insights. I first connected with Nash and Lippmeier after they came to Lakota for Hunting with Heroes. This amazing program, which was created by Bernie and Jason Becker, invites Marines from the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, to the Midwest each November for an all-expenses-paid trip to find some peace in the Iowa countryside and enjoy some prime pheasant hunting.

Captain Nash is now retired from the Marine Corps and lives in Oregon. He enjoys returning to Iowa to help create a sense of camaraderie and comfort for the Marines who participate in Hunting with Heroes for the first time. Staff Sergeant Lippmeier, who participated in the 2016 Hunting with Heroes event, is a Cincinnati, Ohio, native who recently retired from the Marines Corps and appreciates the chance to spend more time with his family, including his children.

Q: Any tips on what people can say to veterans to start the conversation?

Nash: When folks say thanks for your service, it does two things to me. I typically sense their gratitude, but I also sense that sometimes people issue that canned phrase to reassure their sense of patriotism to themselves, and they are not interested in what exactly it is they’re thanking me for.

When I talk to vets, I ask then what branch they were in and what their job was. Army vets often respond with a numerical designation for their military occupational specialty (MOS), like 11B. That’s fine, but ask what that means, where were they stationed, what unit did they serve with? Did they deploy? Do they still keep in touch with anyone they served with?

If these questions don’t begin a conversation, the veteran likely doesn’t want to talk. Respect that. That’s the time to end the conservation and say thank you. It won’t be hollow because, now you both know what you are thanking the veteran for.

Lippmeier: Treat veterans like other people you’ve just met. Ask them what they do/did in the military, like their branch of service and their military occupation. Then use follow-up questions, especially if you don’t understand the answers or certain verbiage the military uses. I would much rather explain something to someone than have them have no clue what I’m talking about.

Upon first meeting someone, most vets I know have no problem talking about what branch they were in or what job they did without going into a lot personal details. Most vets will start to open up a bit as they get more comfortable. If someone doesn’t want to talk about his or her service, respect that. Everyone has bad days sometimes.

Q: Are there any things people shouldn’t ask?

Nash: I don’t like when folks asked me how many people I killed. It’s not like I wrote hash marks in my journal. But if they do ask, that’s better than if they are afraid to ask.

When I sense people don’t have the courage to ask about my experiences, it makes me compare that lack of courage to the bravery I witnessed in the men I served with. Then I wonder why we risked so much for that person’s freedom.

I remember that it’s always incumbent upon the brave to protect the fearful, for a few to sacrifice for the many, but it doesn’t feel good when I compare the fear of driving through a minefield, getting shot at by snipers or having mortars explode around me to someone’s fear of simply asking me what that was like.

Lippmeier: The number one question people shouldn’t ask is, “Have you ever killed anyone?” That is by far the question I ‘ve been asked the most, and it’s definitely a loaded question and a very personal one, as well.

Besides that, most vets will let you know if they don’t want to answer a certain question, or they may shut down if a question strikes a nerve. Again, just respect that and move on. I’m sure there are questions that would make anyone uncomfortable, so just use your best judgment and treat vets with the same respect you would treat any person you just met.

Q: Are there any things you wish people knew about the military or veterans?

Nash: Not every service member experiences combat. Most don’t. It’s important to not discount their sacrifice in the time they spend away from their loved ones and the relative hazards to their job. Also, when it comes to injuries, you must understand that paralysis and amputations are dramatic, but many injuries are unseen. A lot of folks look at me and say things like, “Well, it looks like you are doing just fine.” To which I think, yeah, it’s just my brain and spine that were damaged. No big deal. But I don’t say that.

Lippmeier: The biggest thing that I wish people knew is that everyone’s military experience will vary. Just because someone was in the military doesn’t mean they were in combat. The majority of veterans don’t see combat, but just because a vet wasn’t in combat doesn’t make their service less honorable. Without vets that didn’t see combat, the combat guys wouldn’t be able to do their jobs.

Another thing is that not all injuries are visible. You can spot guys who are missing limbs or using wheelchairs or other devices, but the majority of vets who are injured have “invisible wounds.” Just because I have 10 fingers and 10 toes doesn’t mean I don’t have five herniated discs, scar tissue in my brain, severe post-traumatic stress disorder, and a laundry list of other injuries. So just realize there can be a plethora of things going on with someone even though he or she looks ok.

Q: Any other tips for how civilians can communicate better with veterans?

Lippmeier: Treat veterans like normal people, but realize they’ve had a lot of different experiences than non-vets. Just be patient, and veterans will usually open up after some time. It’s sometimes hard for veterans to let someone in their life, because they may have seen or had someone close to them be violently torn from their life.

Nash: Know that if you ask these questions, the answers may make you uncomfortable. Try to compare your discomfort with the experience of the person you are speaking to, and hopefully it will give you the guts the hang in there and have the conversation. Let veterans know their sacrifices were worth the cost.

Darcy Dougherty Maulsby (a.k.a. Yettergirl) grew up on a Century Farm between Lake City and Yetter and is proud to call Calhoun County home. Contact her at yettergirl@yahoo.com, and visit her online at www.darcymaulsby.com.

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