What to Ask and Not Ask Military Veterans

Airman Salutes Flag
Source: Wikimedia Commons

As the numbers reflect, only about 1% of the adult population serves in the military. Fact: the majority of Americans have not served, or likely aren’t related to someone who has worn the uniform. It’s no wonder, then, that for many civilians interacting with military veterans in a social or business setting poses challenges; one of the biggest is what to ask and what topics to stay away from.

Civilians, I believe, want to be sensitive to the differences in culture, training and experience they understand come from spending time in a military culture, as a service member, spouse or military child. Because of this sensitivity, civilians often either avoid interacting with veterans, or (unfortunately) make mistakes in the questions they ask and topics they discuss.

What to Ask

As part of its growing commitment to empower military veterans, Starbucks recently published a list of suggestions on what to say. Starbucks advises civilians to, “Get to know somebody and take it slowly, just like you would with anyone else. Ask questions about who they are, where they’re from and what they like to do.” 

Conversation starters included on the list are:

  • How long did you serve?
  • What did you do (in the Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, Air Force, Guard, or Reserves)?
  • Why did you choose that branch?
  • Do you come from a military family?
  • Did you visit any other countries?
  • Where was your favorite place you lived?
  • How’s your family doing?
  • What do you do outside of work? Play any sports?

As you can see from this list, many of the questions you’ll ask a veteran are what you might ask anyone who has had a diverse career that is unfamiliar to you. The questions are positive, show interest in them as an individual, and highlight the uniqueness of the military versus civilian career.

What Not to Ask

Probably trickier than what to ask, are the topics, questions and areas to avoid when speaking to someone who has served in the military. Civilians might believe they are being sensitive yet inquisitive when inquiring about military service, but some questions cross the line, such as:

  • Have you ever killed someone?
  • What did it feel like to kills someone?
  • Do you agree with the President or do you think we should have stayed out of (Iraq, Afghanistan)?
  • Is it hard to get back to real life after being in the military?
  • How could you leave your family for so long?
  • What’s the worst thing that happened to you?
  • Were you raped?

Reading this list, you might be thinking, “I would NEVER ask that!” but many civilians have, hence the reason these lists keep appearing. Lists like these are prepared by surveying active duty service members and veterans and gathering their thoughts on the most outrageous, painful and inappropriate questions they have been asked when wearing the uniform or after.

Avoiding salacious or painful topics is recommended regardless of how comfortable you feel with your veteran employee or colleague. Unless this person is a close friend or family member, and the relationship supports this level of intimacy, it is advised to avoid topics that deal with the potentially painful side of military service.

In a 2016 article focused on diversity in the workplace, Army veteran Ryan Kules stated, “Far too often, people assume a level of familiarity with former military that not only breeches proper office conduct but also invades one’s ‘personal space’.”

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