Standing in the middle of the frozen food section of a local grocery store, my husband stood out solely because of his uniform. This was Minnesota, far away from any Army post of any size. A few little boys stared and whispered, their mothers pulling them aside and telling them “don’t stare, yes that’s a soldier, hush-hush;” some customers walked up and interrupted our contemplation of ice cream types with an out thrust hand and “thank you for your service.”
After the third or fourth such disruption, my husband and I left (without the ice cream). We had made the mistake of going grocery shopping after his National Guard weekend, without having him change out of his uniform. My husband hates this empty “shotgun patriotism.” His opinion has always been, if you want to thank me, go do something for a service member, their family or a veteran, I’m not standing here to be your “pat on the back for your patriotism.”
The “thank you for your service” phrase is trotted out by well-meaning civilians no matter where we are or what we are doing, if they see a uniform. It is a quick and easy, not quite meaningless phrase used when someone feels the need to acknowledge a service member that has absolutely no idea what to say.
As Paula Caplan said in her recent oped in the Washington Post, veterans find this habit of a quick phrase and a quick retreat from these well-meaning civilians to be “disturbing.” As one veteran told her, “they don’t really want to know how it was for you.” As a military spouse, I will echo that sentiment.
When someone hears that we are military spouses, we invariably get one of two reactions. Either the “thank your husband for his service,” or “oh you poor thing.” Both of these are annoying in their own unique way. Thanking our spouse for his service may be a good thing to do, but dismissing the fact that military spouses are on the other end of the deployment experience denigrates our very real sacrifice.
The pitying response makes it sound as if we are suffering every day. Yes, during deployment we are stressed. But we also have lives of our own, we have the same hobbies, we have friends, we have children, homes, jobs, we have a life that keeps us busy. We may always have that worry in the back of our minds, but we carry on. Pity is not what we need; sometimes we could use a helping hand, but not pity.
As Ms. Caplan says in her piece, just by listening, civilians can help veterans heal. As a friend said, listening to a military spouse can help as well. When we have been willing to speak up, we are told (even by members of our own community) to be quiet, that we “knew what we signed up for” that we should suck it up and not show any weakness, and any criticism or discussion of any stress or problems are determined to be “whining.” The result? Many military spouses don’t say anything out loud, unless they are writing a blog or commenting at a likeminded site. We are often preaching to the choir, but our voices are still out there.
Instead of telling us to thank our spouse for their service, or giving us the pat on the hand and oh I’m sorry reaction, if you are a friend of a military spouse, just listen when they need to talk. Be aware that there are certain questions that will slam a door in your face. Those would include: “how can you sleep with a murderer?” and “has your husband killed anyone?” or the comparison of the ongoing deployment the military spouse is undergoing with your spouse’s two week fishing trip to Canada. If you think I am making the above questions up, believe me, I’m not; they have been asked of me. My reaction to these depends on my mood (and if there are witnesses).
While I am a strong proponent of counseling and training, I will agree with Dr. Caplan; sometimes we really do just need to talk to someone and we need that person to “actively listen” and look at us, not at their IPhone.
I love Dr. Caplan’s idea: let us make this Veterans Day a National Day of Listening to Veterans — not just running up to the veteran, shaking their hand, thanking them and dashing off again to hit the sales.
Photo credit: .(U.S. Army Photo by Ms. Lea Greene /Released)