Avoiding Friendly Fire: Conversations that will Encourage Your Veteran Friends
Posted in: Stories
- weapon fire coming from one’s own side, especially fire that causes accidental injury or death to one’s own forces
There is nothing more heart-wrenching than the idea of “friendly fire”—when a man or woman is physically harmed unintentionally by someone on their own side. But a type of “friendly fire” can also be inflicted on a combat veteran by loving friends and family at home.
Unless you have personally been in combat facing real-life nightmares, you simply cannot understand what these men and women have gone through and exactly how it is affecting them. Often, without realizing it, emotional “friendly fire” can happen when we say or do something that minimizes the suffering or struggles that military veterans face. Your compassion, however, can help bring understanding and healing. First—learn what thousands of veterans have faced by way of “friendly fire” at home, so you do not accidentally wound in those same ways.
Many of the questions people ask veterans are good and show compassion and genuine interest. But some categories of questions can emotionally and, sometimes, spiritually hurt a veteran, either by bringing up terrible memories or causing undue guilt. A few of these categories include questions about death, guilt, experiences, current news, and even questions about being home. Knowing what can cause this type of “friendly fire” can help you care about and truly support a combat veteran.
Many combat veterans have seen way too much death. Questions like, “Did you kill anyone?” or “Did you see any dead bodies?” can resurrect those memories that they are trying so hard to recover from. Some may never talk about those images. Others will want to talk about them eventually. But you shouldn’t bring it up without them first initiating a conversation about it, otherwise, you might wound them.
Try something like: “I cannot imagine what you went through. But if you ever want to talk about it, I am here for you.”
Just about any combat veteran will have some measure of guilt. Many who make it home alive, although grateful, have survivor’s guilt. Most who participated in direct combat had to make decisions that ultimately resulted in taking human life. These individuals frequently have tremendous guilt but may not know how to identify or admit it. Questions like, “Do you feel guilty about what you did over there?” can cause tremendous emotional pain.
Think about your questions—could they cause that person to feel unnecessary guilt? If they mention guilt on their own, be ready to listen fully first. Just listening and caring is medicine. You can encourage them to get help with those feelings. Cru Military has people and resources to help loved ones deal with feelings of guilt.
Combat veterans may not want to talk about the horrors they have seen. For some, to talk about it is to relive it. Many uninformed people will ask combat veterans about the experiences they faced, often without realizing the graphic nature of the questions they are asking. These questions can cause horrific memories to resurface in a combat veteran.
Some veterans will eventually want to talk about it—but only in their timing and only to someone who has proven to be trustworthy. Many will seek out other veterans who understand. Even though you may not be able to understand, you should always be ready for a combat veteran to open up to you, but you should be sensitive in initiating that conversation.
Try asking: “Have you found some people to talk with about your time overseas? I can’t fully understand, but I am always here for you if you want to talk.”
Engaging a combat veteran with current news or questions about an ongoing conflict or war, even if that war is not the one your friend was in, could cause your friend to relive combat events. Very likely they know people who are still in combat. Stay away from this type of news unless they bring it up and want to talk about it.
People assume mentioning or asking about being “home” is a safe topic, but it is not. Even the simple question, “Are you glad to be home?” carries hidden, emotional landmines you may not have thought about.
Coming “home” is harder than you can imagine! The veteran knows what is expected during the heat of battle. But there is no training manual for coming back from combat deployment, and there is no debriefing that can fully prepare the veteran for how difficult it might be outside of life in combat or the military. Many even desire to go back because they know who they are at war—and how to survive there.
At home, they may be feeling guilt at leaving friends behind, overseas—or even more intense guilt at friends who died and will never return home. In some cases, a veteran’s homecoming can be more traumatic than being on a battlefield. Some return from deployment(s) financially desolate because the person they trusted to take care of their finances spent all their money. Others come back thinking they will be welcomed by their spouse only to find their significant other has been unfaithful; some come back to divorce papers. Often, they are facing a number of negative emotions or experiences when returning.
So instead of mentioning “home,” try saying: “I am so glad to see you! I’ve been meaning to ask you if you need any help now that you are back in the States…” It may open the door for them to share what is going on in their life since they got back.
And finally: “How are You?”
You might be asking what is wrong with the question, “How are you?” Many times, the veteran doesn’t know how they are doing, how to express it, or they simply do not feel safe telling anyone about their feelings or how their state of mind actually is. It is a question that casts a wide net over many areas of someone’s life and feelings. “How are you?” It is a lot of pressure the veteran does not need, especially if they are just returning from combat deployment
You could break it into a smaller piece like: “How is today going?” That is much easier to answer—and could lead to the veteran slowly opening up about more.
And you could always just say, “I really care about how you are doing. So let me know at any time if you want to talk.”
Note: This article was generated from wisdom and input from Sergeant Andi Westfall, who served with the National Guard as a medic during Operation Iraqi Freedom and who suffers from PTSD.
These tips should not be considered absolutely true for every veteran. Each Soldier, Marine, Airman, Sailor, or Coast Guardsman who has been deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Somalia, or any other combat theater has had a different combat experience. How they deal with their experience will vary depending on age, culture, faith, gender, level of community support, and the strength or weakness of a family and/or social support system. A combat veteran is not the same person they were before being deployed to a combat theater. How the civilian population interacts with them can either help or hinder their very difficult transition.