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In the United States, there are over two million military services members including active and reserve forces, but there are more than twenty million living veterans, with the oldest among them having served in World War II. Many of these veterans were conscripted, but most volunteered to serve their country. All of them are equally deserving of our thanks as a nation. While many retired service members appreciate gestures of gratefulness, many people cross the line with inappropriate questions or misguided statements that can offend the men and women who served our country. If you want to avoid making them feel guilty or uncomfortable, here are some things you should never say to a veteran.
"I bet you're so happy to be back."
While coming home is a cathartic experience for many veterans, it's presumptuous, and even a little patronizing, to talk to a veteran about how much better their life must be now that they're out of the service. Quite a number of men and women in the military have a very difficult time adjusting to life outside the service. Many may not have a home or family waiting here, and it's tragically not uncommon for returning service members to develop addictions or deal with homelessness. Telling someone that they should be glad to be out of the military can be disorienting and isolating for them, so it's smart to avoid the notion completely.
"We can't thank you enough."
When many people meet retired service members, the default reaction seems to be overwhelming gratitude. While the men and women who served our country are well-deserving of respect, it comes off as reflexive and utterly shallow when you offer up thanks without knowing anything about them or what they did while serving our country. Many veterans understand that civilians mean well and just don't know how to properly convey their gratitude, but that doesn't stop it from making them feel uncomfortable when strangers throw unnecessary praise at them. If you want to thank a veteran, make a deliberate effort to say thanks by buying them a coffee or performing a similar kind gesture. Offering them an offhand, disconnected "thanks for your service" can make service members just a little bit uncomfortable, and is often worse than doing nothing at all.
"Are you going to be a police officer now or something?"
Many veterans go to school or find new civilian careers once they retire from the military. For some reason, there's this perception among civilians and service members alike that a veteran's skillset can only translate into a job in a police department or in another security-related industry. It's already very difficult for some veterans to overcome this false perception without your encouraging it, especially if they return with a disability. There is such a wide variety of skills that service members learn in the military, that the sky is really the limit for whatever career they transition into. In fact, some of the best jobs for disabled veterans are careers any person would be happy to have. Their service is an admirable addition to their resume, but it doesn't restrict their career prospects.
"So did you kill anyone?"
This is, without a doubt, one of the most inappropriate questions to ask a veteran. Unfortunately, it's also one of the most common. Humans have a natural morbid curiosity, so it's somewhat understandable to be interested in learning about the darker side of military service, but I can't overstate how uncomfortable this question can make a veteran feel. Killing another human is often a life-altering experience, and it is almost never an experience that anyone would want to relive. At best, asking a veteran if they've killed anyone will make them feel guilty or uncomfortable. At worst, this question can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder for someone who is likely already having a very difficult time readjusting to civilian life. Do service members a favor, and keep inappropriate questions like this locked away.
"What are you guys doing over there?"
Curiosity can get the better of us when we're speaking to current and former service members, but generally speaking, it's not a good idea to try and ask them for specifics about why and where they were deployed. Asking about day-to-day life is one thing—many veterans will appreciate the opportunity to tell you about the types of food they ate and other light anecdotes. Asking for details about military actions in foreign countries on the other-hand is highly ill-advised. Aside from potentially being classified information, these sorts of inappropriate questions can be uncomfortable to answer.
"I don't support war."
For some reason, many people feel the need to complain to service members about their personal opinions on war as though the men and women that serve in the armed forces are in charge or decided who goes to war and why. Every veteran has a different reason for joining the military, but a lot of it boils down to feeling the need to serve their country. Civilians should be grateful to the service members who volunteer to defend our country, and not try to make them feel guilty by pushing their own opinions about war. It's pointless, foolish, and one of the main things you should never say to a veteran.
"What's the worst thing you saw over there?"
You'll notice that a lot of the things you should never say to a veteran have to do with not forcing them to relive traumatic events that they might have experienced while deployed. If you know a veteran well and have established trust, they may be willing to share some of their darker war stories with you. Even then, however, it is very rude to directly ask. When you're speaking with someone who you barely even know, you must absolutely avoid any inappropriate questions that can trigger PTSD, or make them feel guilty.
"You should be glad you made it home alive."
Even if you mean it in a well-intentioned or lighthearted way, it is completely off-base to tell a veteran they are lucky to have made it home alive. Many veterans already feel guilty about events that transpired during their deployment, so joking about their death is a surefire way to trigger post-traumatic stress disorder. Coming home is one of the most difficult events on a tour of duty, so much so that the suicide rate of military service members is more than double the national average. You should be happy for every veteran who comes home, but show it to them by embracing their return, not by reminding them of their friends who didn't make it home alive.
"Do you have PTSD?"
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a very real condition that affects a significant percentage of military veterans, especially those who have served during times of war. Asking a veteran if they suffer from PTSD is no different than asking a random stranger on the street if they suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder or clinical depression. It's one of the most personal and inappropriate questions to ask someone, so this is another thing you should keep to yourself. Just because someone is a veteran doesn't mean they are more open or obligated to talk to you about their private life. If you are struggling too, there are some simple ways veterans with PTSD can get help, so that you need not ever feel alienated or alone.
"Did anyone you know die?"
It completely baffles me that anyone would ever think this is an appropriate question to ask. Sometimes it can be hard to know the things you should never say to a veteran, but just think about questions you would be uncomfortable answering yourself. Whether it was in combat or not, would you ever want a stranger to ask you about how your friends died? There's no excuse for thinking this is an appropriate question to ask service members—or anyone else, for that matter. Keep your morbid thoughts to yourself.