How to Talk with Veterans

Sit, kneel, bend. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. We gonna be here for a minute.

Last month, we talked about telling the stories of combat veterans as they really happened. Without whitewashing or varnish. Without embellishment. Without lies.
In the third-to-last paragraph, I make mention of sitting down and talking with veterans. Over the last month I’ve been looking around and realizing nobody has ever explained how to talk with veterans, as a writer looking for technical (and personal) knowledge about the profession of arms. Today, we’re gonna start down that rode.

Before we can start analyzing approach, here are some guidelines.
1) Know what you’re looking for.
-trying to explain infantry in the attack? Go find an infantryman. Trying to find somebody who can explain armor tactics? Get yourself a cav trooper. Find subject matter experts.
2) Be flexible
-If what you dreamed up doesn’t work, be willing to change your approach. If the SME says “no way, not in hell” or similar pithy statements, you may need to rethink what you have your characters doing. THAT IS TOTALLY OKAY. Change happens.
3) Take notes
-Notes can be referred to later. This a “duh, obvious” thing, but people forget it.
4) If you don’t know, ask!
-With a few exceptions, you can ask any question, and get an answer. Need a diagram drawn? Provide paper and pen and ask. Learning can occur. But only if you ask!

Having explained that, we now move to the interview part. Never talk down to us. Condescension puts up walls. Don’t infantilize us. We’re not children. Even if we are younger than you. We are (by and large) men. We expect to be treated accordingly.

Do not ask us how many people we’ve killed. DO NOT DO IT. Unless you’re one of us, that question is not on the table. That is something very personal. Just don’t do it.  Especially do not mention “Call of Duty” (or any other FPS).

Do not assume that we’re going to tell you everything in the first visit. We won’t. We expect you to earn what you’re given. Trust is earned.

Scenarios we’ve lived through, experiences, the pain of losing those we see as our brothers and sisters, those are all part of the veteran experience. We don’t always have words to describe what those moments feel like. Trying to sum up in simple terms what’s its like the first time you take another human being’s life, or cradle a dying brother in your arms as they shuffle off this mortal coil is not easy. Even worse is watching someone you care about die in front of you and be powerless to stop that occurrence. It is however, necessary. Such is the soldier’s life.

When you come to those places in a conversation, just sit and be still and listen. If we’re ready to tell you about such a moment, we’ll do so. But it has to be our choice. If you can’t abide that, you’re not ready to talk with us.

Some guys brag about themselves, or try to blow their service up so they don’t feel inadequate about what they did. Ignore such persons. They’re not what you’re looking for. Look instead for the man (or woman we have quite a few sisters-in-arms these days) who is professional, and doesn’t blow smoke up your ass. My adopted Grandfather, Phil Eagle is such a man. He flew aboard C130s and B52s in Vietnam as a navigator. Quiet, professional, patient, deliberate. He took the time to impart to me what he could and I am the better for it.

Never forget that we too are mortal. Never forget that we view the world very differently than you do. It’s part of how we survived our time before the mast. If you can remember all this, you’ll be the better for it.


40 thoughts on “How to Talk with Veterans

  1. in my experience you’ll do better befriending you veteran first before asking questions. Especially questions that relate to their personal experience in the field. Oh and buy them a beverage of their keep their vocal chords properly lubricated

  2. however, if you’re also a vet, talking to other vets usually starts with “No sh*t, there i was….”

    (only half kidding)

    I need an infantry guy to discuss powered armor with.

    1. 0341 good enough? Or looking for the whole 0311 experience?

      I’m the former, between SOI and hanging around line platoons, I might be able to help a mite.

      I guess my first question would be whether the powered armor would be general issue, or a supporting element?
      If a supporting element, I would guess they’d replace the automatic gunner in the standard 4-man fireteam, providing a base of fire. (With the current Assistant A-Gunner being assigned new tasks. After all, he’s no longer going to be a packmule for an extra barrel and more ammo!)
      If general issue, the brass is going to load down the chassis with every piece of CYA gear they can possibly imagine. And the Good Idea Fairy pays them regular visits. (As it was in the 90s, our combat load was pushing 90 lbs without ammo or picking up a piece of crewserve. )

      1. Completely extraneous detail, I’d been tempted to ask of you knew a guy named Chuck. (Had a friend who was 0351 who used your exact handle, and who fell off the face of the earth once he mustered out..)

        1. Right. I forget you can’t see the email addy I have to supply every time I submit a post. 🙂
          (Shrug) I had a bloodhound. It made sense at the time. (Especially given his habit of poking you in the ribs every time you weren’t wearing a shirt. )

  3. OTOH, not all veterans are the same when it comes to stuff that’s useful for fiction. For instance, I have no “war stories”, nothing of any real interest at all. You know that old cliche “I could tell you but I’d have to kill you?” Well, “I could tell you but you’d die of boredom.”

    1. I can tell you fun stuff like we were selling our 1960s commo gear in job lots to Kenya (and some 1970s stuff to the Saudis)

    2. Exactly. It is possible to spend a year in a combat zone and never fire a shot in anger. It’s not all storming the Normandy beaches or saving Private Ryan. My father told me that in WWII he was so far behind the lines that he stood guard with an empty rifle. I was amazed — until i went to ‘Nam and my unit stood guard with empty rifles. (After one guy tried to suck-start an M-16.)

      1. Heck, I had a friend who was deployed in Clinton’s armed expedition to Haiti, and was one of the first fanning out on the tarmac taking a defensive position.
        It was a photo op, they were not issued ammunition. Had there been resistance, a support element was supposed to bring up ammo to only the unit being engaged, in something loosely resembling a timely fashion.

        1. “It was a photo op, they were not issued ammunition.”

          Welcome to the Canadian Armed Forces, gentlemen. That’s how they work it.

          The whole “Canada In Afghanistan” thing started in exactly the same way. It was a photo-op for Liberal PM Paul Martin, aka PMPM, aka Mr. Dithers.

          I do not know for a fact that they were not issued ammunition, but I do know they were sent over in “Shoot Me!(tm) Green” desert un-camoflage. They had to beg uniforms from the Brits and Americans. They had to beg vehicles from the Germans. (Canadian Forces runs Mercedes G-Wagens and Leopard II tanks now, despite living next to the Arsenal of Democracy.) Sending them with no ammo seems to follow logically, you wouldn’t want a “stupid red-neck asshole from Alberta” shooting a local, would you? That’s how the Liberals, and the upper echelon of the officer’s corps, think of Canadian soldiers.

          Which is why I got out before I was really in, back when Pierre Trudeau ran the store. The contempt for enlisted men was so thick you could scrape it off the walls. Even an aspy teenager could see it, it was that unsubtle.

    3. There was a time when I would have taken notes. . . I was working on a story that took place FAR behind the lines. Do you know how rare military writing about that is?

      (It didn’t gell.)

      1. I know -nothing- because I was 17 years old, kinda weird and I lasted almost a whole year in the weekend warrior Canadian Reserves. Kind of like the National Guard crossed with an old-boy’s drinking club.

        Mostly it was boring, insulting and dangerous. The danger came because bored kids get up to trouble, and also because “workplace safety” was not in the manual. Things were to be done quickly, not safely.

        Then there was the time a 105mm artillery round was slid into somebody’s trench at 2AM because so F-ing bored. The lads were -sure- it was an inert practice round, right? Because 17 year old boys can totally tell a practice round from a dud live HE round in the dark. Which would have made pink mist out of one and all, leaving a 20 foot wide crater. Lucky boys, it was a practice round.

        I decided cliff climbing and motorcycle street racing were safer pursuits.

        It would be hard to write as a story, because stultifying boredom, casual contempt and never-ending low level discomfort can’t really translate into something interesting.

        Bored 17 year olds attacked by monsters, -that- you can do something with.

        1. The precise story catalyst was discovering that some supplies had degraded to the extent of being a menace.

        2. I did some stories about the life of the peacetime military from a female POV … when I was getting it all out of my system upon being retired from the Air Force. Yeah, we who do our bit in support of those at the pointy end of the spear do have our stories.
          Really, if there was a more “in the rear with the gear AFSC than broadcaster tech, I would have loved to hear about it…”

  4. And if you’re not a vet, don’t rag on any of the services. Vets can and do, all the time. Jar heads, wing wipers, squids, stupid grunts, etc.

    But we close ranks if a non-vet disparages any of the services.

    And yes, the Coast Guard is considered to be member of the warrior brotherhood.

    One of them was awarded the MOH in WW II.

    1. The only cadence I remember from Basic (let’s pretend it was fewer than 30 years ago) is:
      We are the Air Force
      The mighty, mighty Air Force.
      We’re not the Marine Corps
      The jar-head Marine Corps.
      We’re not the Navy
      The deck-swabbing Navy.
      We’re not the Army
      The ground-pounding Army.
      We are the Air Force
      The mighty, mighty Air Force.

      Pretty mild as far as disparagement goes.

  5. I have a friend who was twice sole survivor of his unit in ‘Nam. (Got a boat blown out from under him, and got blown out of a foxhole.) He’ll tell you all about the surrounding stuff, and make it funny as hell, but stays off the blood and guts. He used to be able to tell you exactly how many days since he got out. I remember the moment when he forgot the count, and he said something to the effect of “I must finally be over it.”

    BTW if you’ve eaten an omelet at a Navy officers mess any time since ‘Nam, you ate one of his recipes.

  6. There’s stories anyone who’s seen the elephant will tell, mostly about the sheer boredom of sitting around trying to look busy when you’re putting in three hours of hard graft a week.

    Hell, I’ll tell the story about stopping my bosses new office in Iraq for two weeks because I sicced graves registration on him, or any of a hundred other anecdotes about daily life over there inside the wire as a contractor.

    There are some stories, however, that don’t get told outside of long dark nights with others who’ve been there.

    1. And there are stories that people never think of, and never get told, like emergencies in missile silos, or in flight, or on subs, that get written up and are considered a day at work.

      If civilians knew about some of that stuff, they’d pass a brick.

      1. I had eight years in the AF underground, babysitting missiles. First five were with Titan IIs, which had two really nasty liquid fuels, which ignited on contact (at a point on the launch sequence), and at site 374-7 in Arkansas in ’80 (a large socket came off the wrench and holed one of the fuel tanks; could have been set off by an electric spark.) Somewhere in Kansas, a similar occurance, but this time an oxidizer tank (N2O2, which is hygroscopic and becomes N2H20–nitric acid). That one just ate up the silo.
        I never experienced anything like that. All but one were blown in in the early ’80s, except for 571-7 which is not the Titan Missile Museum (info on the web) and there are YouTube videos.

        The rest was in Minuteman, where the missiles were (and are) miles away from the launch control centers. Much simpler. No “war stories” for me. Worst thing that could happen is all power could fail, but we had flashlights. And getting snowed in.

        1. I was with the Titans at Davis Monthan in the early 80s.

          I was on Dutch the day Reagan was shot and again the night the Arkansas blew. The radio traffic was “intense.”

      1. because if you don’t, a guy uses the shield generator that he was handed by higher to slide his roomate’s legs off?

  7. “Do not ask us how many people we’ve killed. DO NOT DO IT. Unless you’re one of us, that question is not on the table. That is something very personal. Just don’t do it.”

    Yes. A thousand times yes.

    This is in the same category as asking someone “When’s the last time you had sex with your wife?”

    1. I’d consider it on par with asking a doctor how many of their patients died.

      Doctors are a lot like vets. They close ranks to outsiders, and there are stories that -never- get told outside the brotherhood.

  8. One of my uncles who served in Korea just died. He used to regale family with stories about how he served as a cook. His two bronze stars? Not a word.

    1. a vet friend once went on a tirade about the huge numbers he’d killed, talking about how he dropped some of them until they broke, and how some he electrocuted, and others he simply let get hit by lighting, and some he’d suffocated….

      and after the person sits there with a horrified look, he says he’s a NETWORK ENGINEER and was talking about ROUTERS

  9. One of the problems of talking with veterans is that we don’t all speak the same language. F’rinstance:

    If the order is given to “secure the building”, the Navy locks all the doors and turns off all the lights. The Army posts a sentry and lets no one in. The Marines set up a barbed wire perimeter with machine gun emplacements. The Air Force takes out a 3-year lease with option to buy.

    They’ve all complied with the order. 🙂

    1. “The Air Force takes out a 3-year lease with option to buy.”

      Many moons ago, I worked as a contract software developer on the Airforce Civil Engineering System (ACES). It was designed to track everything regarding Air Force real property and structures however acquired, including purchase, leasing, accounting, etc.

      As part of that, we had access to the actual records of lease agreements for various buildings. There were three in particular in the Boston area. They had been leased for 20+ years, and when we tallied up the amount of the lease payments and maintenance, even at credit card (20% or better) interest rates, it would have been cheaper to take out a loan and build them.

      Of course, when we looked up the owner of the buildings and found out he had Kennedy connections, the motive was obvious.

  10. Most of the vets in my family do not talk. Not to family or anyone else. One uncle was hit on Omaha. Another was in Korea. Another in the Navy. Father was a Marine. His brothers were in the Army and Navy. Two cousins in the Air Force. Wife’s cousin has done multiple tours in the current messes and may go back. Nieces husband hasn’t adapted fully to civilian life but is coming around.

    I suggest if you can’t talk to a vet, listen/watch some vet to vet interviews. I suggest the interviews of Jocko Podcast or Mike Ritland on YouTube. Understand that you may have to read up to understand the vocabulary, but there also is a lot of pain and emotion at times.

  11. Hours and hours of boredom, moments of sheer %%%(#!@ TERROR! And yes, lubricating a vet’s vocal cords is always appreciated… LOL

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