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.