Our military serves to protect the United States of America, and when its service members retire, the transition into civilian jobs sometimes leaves our veterans wishing employers could understand a few things. Unfortunately, our veterans often face frustration over misconceptions and inappropriate questions that are avoidable.

While my family is not a military family, we have lived and worked in the D.C. area for over 15 years. Given our location, I have worked alongside enlisted and retired military, and my whole family has been blessed with friends from different branches who have graced our life…sometimes more than one time. I wish I could say I have perfectly addressed every military personnel, but alas, I cannot claim that. Without that background growing up, my first foray into defense contracting felt like another world for me at times. I would have appreciated a 411 as an introduction 18 years ago.

Clarifications

First, let’s clarify some things that veterans wish fellow coworkers or potential employees better understood.

  1. Not everyone is a soldier. Army personnel are considered soldiers, but each military branch has its own mission, services, rankings, uniforms, and culture. So use the terms veterans or military personnel but not soldier.
  2. Active Duty and Reserves are both ways to serve in the U.S. military. While Reserves may have civilian jobs as well, both are considered service in the military.
  3. Not everyone who served in the military has post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Combat may lead to PTSD, but people respond differently to the stressors of military life.
  4. Invisible war wounds do not equate to danger or violence. They are real wounds, and they deserve the same amount of treatment as physical injuries.
  5. Active Duty and Reserve personnel come from all of the branches, and they have different jobs that range from technicians to cooks to lawyers. Not all military personnel served in infantry (tanks or patrol). All of the jobs demand different physical and mental requirements.

Points to Remember

Next, there are a few things to remember when you are interviewing or working on a team with a veteran. Assumptions never work out well.

  1. Leaders in the military are at every level. Rank is not always relevant to know. Military culture prides itself on creating leaders at all of the levels, so it is important to know that a veteran is an individual with a proven record of following and giving orders. Leadership in the military translates to the civilian world. End of story.
  2. Each veteran has made the choice to sacrifice and serve our country. But understand that service to the country does define the military culture, and time in the military is a permanent life-changing experience.
  3. Military personnel have spent years being ready 24/7. This life does take its toll on the service member, as well as the family.
  4. Loss of friends is often inevitable. However, point-blank questions about friends lost along the way can feel probing and unhelpful. Assume the worst and be ready with grief resources if necessary. Grief is not an easy break room topic, so respect a veteran’s basic humanity when you are asking questions about their time in service.

Allowable Questions

Here’s ┬ásome suggestions for questions or conversation starters.

  1. Start out a conversation with a veteran by asking which branch they served the U.S. This question shows that you understand that there are differences, and then follow up with asking about the different jobs the veteran held.
  2. While it is never okay to ask military personnel if they have PTSD, it could be helpful to ask questions like, “What was your worst day in military service?” or “What was your best day in service?” Questions that show thoughtful care about a valuable experience show that you want to understand the path that a veteran has walked through.
  3. Everyone responds to life inside and outside the military differently. Instead of making assumptions, ask a veteran how they define themselves now and how their time in the military shaped them.
  4. Not all military personnel had to kill someone, so do not ask that question. If someone was in combat, assume they do not wish to talk about it.
  5. Military life impacts an entire family. If a veteran has a family, be sure to look for ways to care for the whole family, as well as ask veterans about the type of sacrifices their family has made for our country.

Good intentions are helpful, but as with every situation in life, remember that it is better to learn first and speak second. Just because someone served our country does not mean we get a free pass to ask curiosity-type or probing questions. Take the time to ask thoughtful questions and learn about a veteran’s experience.

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Jillian Hamilton has worked in a variety of Program Management roles for multiple Federal Government contractors. She has helped manage projects in training and IT. She received her Bachelors degree in Business with an emphasis in Marketing from Penn State University and her MBA from the University of Phoenix.