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Avoiding Assumptions

Steer Clear of Stereotypes:  Regardless of how common the stereotypes of Service Members and veterans may or may not be among civilians, veterans themselves are strongly aware of the stereotypes, and this can widen the chasm between the military and civilian cultures.  According to veterans interviewed, the stereotypes would say that Service Members are uneducated, less intelligent than civilians (as evidenced by the fact that they “had to” enlist in military service because they could find no other good career options), politically conservative “warmongers,” automatons who simply follow orders without question, and violent individuals who have no moral compass.  The strongest expression of these stereotypes is a real or perceived attitude of condescension, and many Service Members and veterans are hyper-aware of that attitude.

10 Things You Should Know to Help Bring the
OIF/OEF Veterans All the Way Home

Unless you have established a comfortable, trusting relationship, if you say or do anything that is interpreted as reflecting these stereotypes, it is likely to provoke what seems like “resistance” and shut down communication.  Just as the amygdala is able to bring up the whole traumatic experience at a single sound that reminds it of that experience, so is the human being able to bring up the whole tangle of stereotypes at a single condescending or judgmental word, gesture, or expression.  Given the difficulty of repairing these misunderstandings, it is far easier to listen and “seek first to understand.”

In reality, many Service Members and veterans are highly educated, intelligent people, with interests, talents, attitudes, and opinions as varied as those in the civilian population.  This is a group as diverse as any other—many ages, many races, many reasons for volunteering for military service.  Their hopes, dreams, and life plans run the gamut, and so do their politics and their feelings about the wars they have fought (Lighthall, 2008).

They are also very much steeped in the military culture, which is a culture of courage, respect, discipline, loyalty, honor, obedience to authority, and patriotism.  And each man and woman among them was willing to travel halfway around the world to live in unbelievably harsh conditions and face the possibility of permanent injury or death.  Civilian clinicians owe it to themselves and to their clients to learn as much as possible about this culture and the individuals who have chosen to join it. 

Understand The Positive Aspects:  For the empathic soul who has not been to war but has heard enough to guess at the depth of its tragedies, it may be difficult to think of the Service Member as having had positive experiences in the war zone.  But there are many aspects of the military culture and experience that are positive, reassuring, satisfying, and marked by deep bonds of friendship and mutual protection.  It is frustrating to many Service Members and veterans that many civilians think of the experience in Iraq and Afghanistan purely in terms of violence and destruction.  Here are just a few of the experiences some veterans have cited as positive:

  • The deep friendships they formed within their Unit
  • The knowledge that their buddies would be willing to die to protect them, and that they would be willing to die to protect their buddies
  • A powerful sense of mission and purpose in their work
  • The rush of sympathetic chemicals (e.g., adrenaline, norepinephrine, dopamine) that comes with battle
  • A wonderful sort of “gallows humor” that helps them gain perspective and cope with life
  • Interactions with children and other friendly civilians within the war zone
  • The opportunities to help civilians within the community build a new society and recover from the effects of war

To assume that any particular veteran had experienced any or all of these benefits would be just as inadvisable as it would be to assume the worst about his or her experience.  The key is to:

  • Listen
  • Follow where he or she leads
  • Look for strengths, resources, and resilience
  • Respect the complexity of his or her experience.

Next: Earning Trust


The material on all of the Clinical Pages is taken directly from the draft version of Finding Balance After the War Zone:  Considerations in the Treatment of Post-Deployment Stress Effects, a manual under development for the Great Lakes Addiction Technology Transfer Center and Human Priorities.  This draft is copyright © 2008, Pamela Woll.  Reprint permission is universally granted, but attribution is requested.
Click here for References and Other Resources.
Click here to link to a PDF file of the current version of the clinician’s manual draft.
Click here to link to a PDF file of the accompanying booklet for veterans.

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