A Secret Weapon in the Fight Against COVID-19

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A U.S. soldier speaks with Afghan villagers in the village of Baba Kala.
A U.S. soldier speaks with villagers on February 17, 2009 in the village of Baba Kala, eastern Afghanistan. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Brian Thompson leads the Veterans Correspondence Team at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

As the world battles a pandemic, my own memories of war have come rushing back to me.

Over a decade ago, my U.S. Army unit patrolled the rugged terrain and tribal regions of Afghanistan. I remember arriving at a small village near the Pakistan border.

Villagers stepped outside their mud huts to greet us. They had never seen Americans before.

Through an interpreter, we told them we were working with their government to bring safety and security to Afghanistan.

They responded: "What's a government?" "What's Afghanistan?"

I looked up from their bewildered faces to the imposing mountains and wondered how we would win the war if the people we were trying to help didn't even understand our goals.

In this fight against COVID-19 -- a fight we cannot afford to lose -- we're all soldiers. Everyone plays a critical role in slowing the virus' advancement.

And so, our leaders and media must be crystal clear in communicating our marching orders.

When the crisis started, many of us felt as confused as those villagers in Afghanistan. How serious is it? How concerned should we be? Is this like the flu? Is it deadlier?

There were conflicting reports. There were rumors. There was no clear authority of information.

During the early stages of a largely unknown virus, confusion is understandable. Scientists are racing to get a handle on something spreading at an exponential rate.

Governments and the media can't control that. But what they can control is the language they use to describe events to an anxious public.

That's why it's important to use words everyone understands. When spoken to the public, terms like zoonotic, asymptomatic and community transmission can sow confusion and worsen fears. But scientific terminology can be broken down into plain language we all can understand.

That's the concept of readability. It matters in warfare, too, and our armed forces recognize that.

Case in point: The U.S. military uses a readability assessment to ensure service members can understand technical manuals. Complex weapons systems are useless if operators don't know how to pull the trigger.

In the fight against a virus, equipment like masks, gloves and testing kits are the weapons of health care workers.

We citizen soldiers are best armed with information. To make good decisions, we need a clear understanding of the risks and the effective precautions -- a civic technical manual for a pandemic.

Readability means dropping the jargon, getting to the heart of the matter as clearly as possible, and empowering people through understanding.

I'm not suggesting that using words those Afghanistan villagers understood would have clarified our mission and brought us success.

But like the concepts of "government" and "Afghanistan," a virus is invisible to the naked eye. The best we can do as citizens is understand its meaning, its risks and its vulnerabilities through words we all know.

Through that understanding, we stand a fighting chance.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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