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Americans love the troops, but often don't know how to actually support them

On Veterans Day, and all across the country, people and businesses will honor the millions of veterans who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea, World War II and during the Cold War.

Part 1:Failing as a civilian | Part 2: Struggling to get help | Part 3: Veterans Day

In the military and veteran community, there’s a long-running joke that gets circulated every Veterans Day. Essentially, they joke about how fat they’re going to get visiting every single chain restaurant that offers free meals to veterans on the holiday; they share dark-humored satirical articles about how the free meals make up for lasting physical and mental trauma caused by military service. 

The free Veterans Day meal phenomenon is a relatively new one. The holiday was first observed as Armistice Day, celebrating the end of World War 1 in 1918. It was renamed Veterans Day in 1954, and is traditionally rife with patriotic displays, deals, sales, and observances. One only need look at an NFL game during November to see teams wearing camouflage-pattern uniforms, yellow ribbons adorning the stadium, and military flyovers during the National Anthem. 

Americans, by and large, are infatuated with the military and the veterans who have served in it. According to Gallup’s annual Confidence in Institutions poll, the U.S. military enjoys widespread support; other polls indicate that large majorities of Americans support expanding veterans benefits. 

The American public devotes a lot of energy to displaying their support for troops and veterans, but some experts believe these public displays are harmful because they alienate veterans who are struggling, and inadvertently stigmatize seeking help. 

'Did you kill anyone?'

Only about 1% of Americans serve in the military. For the other 99%, their understanding of military service comes from what they see on the news and in movies, as well as what politicians and prominent veterans say in public speeches. 

“It's really difficult for someone who has not experienced the military to understand what it's like,” said Michael Casavantes, Ph.D., a Vietnam veteran and professor of media studies at Arizona State University. 

“The way the media — and I'm talking not only the press, but also Hollywood — the way they depict soldiers, it's either the kind of psychopath that Sgt. Barnes was in ‘Platoon,’ or the stalwart stoic hero like John Wayne in ‘Sands of Iwo Jima,’” he said. 

Those depictions tend to focus on one thing: combat. And in a lot of cases, the combat is unrealistically glamorized and heroic. 

“The news is the news, and in spite of all the progress we've made, the old, ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ is still the go-to way to set up a newscast,” he said. 

Combat sells. There’s no reason to write a war film about Army personnel clerks or Navy aircraft mechanics: the people who make up a majority of the services. Because of this, civilians often have a skewed view of what military service is actually like, and the root causes of issues veterans face when they leave the service. 

“People hear that I'm a Marine and you see it in their eyes. They think, ‘oh, this guy killed someone,’” Marine Corps veteran Dan Bannick said. “I never fired a bullet at anyone in my entire life.”

Fewer than 10% of veterans ever fired their weapons in combat. By far, most veterans never deployed to a combat zone, or served in combat support roles. Their experiences are vastly different from what civilians expect.

Former Army Staff Sgt. Dustin Logan did multiple deployments. But now, he no longer asks fellow veterans about their deployments, simply because he feels like it diminishes the service of those who didn’t deploy — or might needlessly re-traumatize those who did deploy. 

“When I was in, if you were in, you were going [to deploy],” Logan said. “Now a lot of there's a lot of veterans now who did like three or four years who never deployed. You can do four years, get college money and stay stateside.”

He even sees the disappointment on civilians' faces when a veteran doesn’t have a gruesome war story to tell — or a gruesome story they don’t want to tell. 

“And you can tell that they want to hear like, oh, ‘Were you infantry?’ And it's like, well, what does that have to do with my 10% discount,” he said. “And just having that conversation, I'm just, I just don't want to have it anymore.”

Some veterans, including Bannick, lament the expectation that they should be excited to share war stories — especially the traumatic ones. 

“A friend of mine, he saw some horrible things and had to do things that kept him awake at night for many years later,” Bannick said. “I certainly don't suggest anybody bring that kind of stuff up casually.”

These interactions, however well-intentioned, impact veterans negatively in many different ways.

'Thank you for your service'

Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, magnetic yellow “Support Our Troops” ribbons became ubiquitous across the country. Americans wanted to show support for the men and women who volunteered for military service. Shauna Springer, Ph.D., is a psychologist who works with the veteran community. 

“I think average civilians care about veterans,” Springer said. “They watch shows and movies, they let them board planes first. There is a sense of honor that we extend to our veterans.”

A lot of veterans find that phrases like “thank you for your service” make them uncomfortable, though. 

“They mean well, and there's nothing wrong with them saying that, but you don't know how to respond,” Bannick said. “I'm just a dude who got my free college, got to travel, and, thankfully, I didn't lose anybody in my unit to combat.”

Springer says these phrases are something Americans see as more of a social norm: something people are expected to say when they meet a veteran. 

“Empty phrases that feel like lip service — like, ‘Thank you for your service,’ or, ‘You’re a hero,’ or, ‘You're so resilient’ — are things we've been socialized to say to veteran,” Springer said. 

“Empty phrases that feel like lip service — like, ‘Thank you for your service,’ or, ‘You’re a hero,’ or, ‘You're so resilient’ — are things we've been socialized to say to veteran.” — Shauna Springer, Ph.D.

Those phrases expressing gratitude are well-intentioned, but often force the recipient to respond politely and hide any mental anguish caused by their time in the military. 

“When I talk to the veterans in my circle, they actually don't really like those things,” Springer said. “When you call someone out as resilient, and they're truly suffering on the inside, you make it harder for them to get help.”

When Logan left the Army, he didn’t feel like he needed to seek help for his mental illness. Everybody was calling him resilient and telling them how much they respected him. 

“They say, ‘Thank you for your service.’ People respect me. I don't have to [get help]. I'm good. It doesn't matter that I punched my wife last night. That's all good,” Logan said, describing his initial thought process. “The little things are irrelevant because so many people think you're the hero. If you don't show trauma, then you feel like you don't need to be helped.”

None of this is meant to say that military service isn’t noble or honorable —  just that the social expectation of gratitude isn’t always as beneficial as people think it is. Instead, Springer thinks the public should try to understand the nuances of military service, rather than expressing blanket gratitude. 

“Veterans feel invisible. They feel like ghosts walking through a culture where people don't truly see them and truly understand their pain,” Springer said. “I think developing that deeper understanding of the kinds of pain that our veterans lock ten levels in the vault is really important.”

Navigating a new identity

Bannick wants people to understand that veterans are more than the job they once held. He’s a musician: he plays the guitar, drums, and bass and has been in a few small bands. He also has a degree in screenwriting and loves to cook. But when people learn he’s a veteran, that’s often the only way they identify him, he says.  

“It’s not who we are. I'm not just a vet. I'm a dude who did that once,” Bannick said. “Don't tokenize anyone for something they did temporarily in their life to make a better life for themselves or their family. You can respect a person's service, but don't make their identity that.” 

The veteran identity is something that often follows a veteran from the day they leave the service until they die. If they accomplish something newsworthy — or if they commit a major crime — their veteran status is front and center.

“If some vet goes off the rails and kills a couple of people, that's going to be the news: ‘crazed vet.’ Well, what about the other 99% that didn't do anything crazy? Why don't they get coverage,” Casavantes said. 

Springer says that if society wants to help its veterans — something she says a civilized society should want to do — it should focus on understanding the innate cultural differences between the veteran community and mainstream Americans.

“We need to really respect our veterans, but realize that they're fully human, just like all of us,” Springer said. “They really need civilians who are willing to hear it and really hear whatever they have to share without judgment, understanding that they inhabit a different culture.”

“We wanted to be a part of history,” Bannick said. "[We] wanted to look in our kid's history book later on, when they bring home their homework, and just be like, yeah, I was there. Some of us were really there, and the majority of us, myself included, were kind of just supporting roles in the background.”

Part 1:Failing as a civilian | Part 2: Struggling to get help | Part 3: Veterans Day

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Scott Bourque was a reporter and podcast producer at KJZZ from 2019 to 2022.