Share this article with civilians you know that care about and want to support veterans.
Why are so many veterans killing themselves? The Department of Veterans Affairs has conducted multiple studies on the rates of veteran suicides and is the source of the oft-cited statistic of 20 veteran suicides per day, on average. None of these studies, however, have produced a lot of insight as to why. Some researchers have found factors of elevated risk, like how recently the veteran deployed, whether they have a network of social support or religious beliefs, and other factors. The most common thread throughout these different studies is the need for veterans to get reconnected into civilian society.
The problem, though, is that the US is a highly individualistic society. As a rule, we default to leaving others alone and not getting involved in other people’s lives. We tend to think “it’s none of my business.” Veterans adopt this mentality too, and suffer immensely because they almost immediately become highly isolated and are forced to deal with the struggles of transition completely alone.
You are probably reading this either because a veteran you care about shared the article with you or you are simply interested in getting involved to help and support veterans. You may not understand exactly what you can do to help them, especially given the powerful social and cultural standards in the US of not getting involved in other people’s lives. You can sense that the yellow ribbon on the back of your car is basically worthless for providing ongoing support for veterans, but you are at a loss for how to help more.
There are three specific avenues that are not only totally socially acceptable but are also highly respected and effective: friendship, mentorship, and advocacy.
Before I discuss how to provide mentorship and advocacy, let me define them:
- Mentorship is essentially giving advice, but doing so in an ongoing context, and with the explicit understanding that you take some responsibility for your advice. This means that you offer advice only within a somewhat narrow domain, you have regular periods of interaction, and you commit to an ongoing relationship.
- Advocacy starts when the veteran leaves the room. It entails talking to others and influencing decisions in a way that will serve the veteran’s best interests. It involves people other than the veteran, and may be directed either to specific people (like those you mentor) or a broad population (like the veterans in your community). Note that this is not the same thing as advocating for veterans before the courts or other legal proceedings.
Finding a veteran to befriend, mentor, and support
Veterans make up only about 7.4% of the adult population of the US. It’s entirely possible that you may not immediately know many veterans. It may seem like there aren’t any around you at all, but this is not very likely.
Previous generations of veterans would hang out at the local chapter of the VFW or American Legion, but the most recent generation tends to bypass these places. Additionally, starting a mentorship relationship in this context could be awkward.
The three best places to find a veteran to mentor are colleges/universities, your local church, or your company. These are places veterans are already likely to visit frequently, that have an administration that may be familiar with their veteran status, and where these kinds of relationships between people are common or expected.
Start first by going to the veteran services office at the university, the pastor of the church, or to your human resources department and tell them that you’d like to mentor a veteran. Even if they don’t have a formal program, they can help connect you with a veteran.
How to befriend a veteran
Being a good friend to a veteran may be difficult if you aren’t interested in the military. This is especially the case the first few months following transition because the veteran will have little experience outside of the military and therefore little else to talk about.
Befriending a veteran is extremely important. Veterans need civilian friends, like you to help them reintegrate into society and bear witness to what they experienced during their service. Here’s why:
Civilian friends can provide valuable support throughout the entire reintegration process. Often, a veteran separates from service and moves to an completely new community. This alone can be stressful, but without any friends in that community, it can be overwhelming.
If you know a veteran recently moved into your community, start by inviting them to come eat with your family or hang out at a barbecue. Learn their name,where they served, and what they did. They may want to tell you more, or they may not. Don’t pressure them too much if they seem uncomfortable with their story. It may take time for them to become comfortable enough to share.
Veterans need to spend time with people acting normally and in socially acceptable ways. Some of their habits in the service may not be as acceptable in social settings, and it’s important for them to learn what is okay and what isn’t with a group of people that care about them.
If a veteran makes a social faux pas, take them aside and explain what happened. Let them know that you know it wasn’t intentional, but you are telling them so they can adapt their behavior for the future. You probably don’t want to confront them until you’ve built a foundation of trust; otherwise, they may be defensive.
Integrating a veteran into your social circle make take time and a little awkwardness, but it’s essential to helping veterans to become highly functioning members of the communities for which they sacrificed.
The other part to befriending a veteran is to bear witness to their story. Civilians truly want to understand what veterans went through, but struggle to communicate with veterans because they don’t want to stir up raw emotions.
Veterans loathe the question “Did you ever kill anyone?” It’s an awkward and personal question, and there’s really no way to have that conversation in a meaningful way. Instead, here are a few other questions to ask:
- What made you most proud of your service? Was there a specific mission?
- Who was your best friend while you were in the service? Where are they now?
- What made you decide to join the service? Did you find what you were looking for?
- What are your current goals? How can I help you?
- Have you thought about what you want to do now that you are out that you couldn’t do while you were in?
Generally, questions that focus on positive experiences, patriotism, pride, and the present and future will be the best questions to ask. It’s tempting for civilians to glorify the valor of veterans, but it’s more helpful to them to focus on the present and the future. Veterans are not simply relics of past wars; they are living humans with rich futures ahead of them.
Another, more formal path is to go through American Corporate Partners. This organization sets potential mentors up with veterans according to their needs. It can be a great resource for someone trying to get more involved but without a large network that includes veterans.
How to mentor a veteran
Veterans come out of the military with two ideas in mind:
- they can work harder/smarter than most other people; and,
- they can do most civilian leadership jobs if given the chance.
Imagine how painful and difficult it would be to realize that civilian employers don’t really value your military service, and that you may be rejected in the job market for months or even years. Add to these concerns the inherent stress of separation and the psychological and emotional toll it takes, and it’s no wonder that mental health issues are common among veterans.
Veterans need to understand that their skills can be very valuable, up to a point and in the right context, but they are unlikely to be able to demonstrate their total value right out the gate. This is a good thing. Veterans rarely realize how difficult and painful transition out of service is for the first year or two. They need to focus most of their energy on learning how to reintegrate into society, how to manage their emotions and behaviors as they encounter new environments, and how they should focus and direct their post-separation career.
Because of all the additional stress that transition creates, the best thing for a veteran is typically a job slightly below their aptitude, where they can do very well without too much struggle and can focus more energy on transition. The most successful veterans recognize this early on and get to work finding entry-level positions they can execute on well.
Veterans will appreciate this kind of strategic advice, but it has to come in the right package. So any mentorship session should focus on the following few principals:
- Listen first. The veteran needs to be heard, even if what they are saying is not true. Don’t interrupt at all. Try to understand the emotions behind what the veteran is saying. A veteran may be anxious or depressed, or overly confident or exuberant. Understanding each of these states can help direct your interaction. A veteran may not be up front about their emotional state or condition, so it’s important that the mentor practice active listening, pay attention to body language, and ask questions to get better insight into the veteran’s internal state.
- Develop goals together. What is the purpose of the mentorship? Is it reintegration, job acquisition, career development, skill development, etc.? Having a clear goal in mind will provide better structure for the advice.
- Don’t just give advice. Provide questions and insight/intelligence that helps the mentee “discover” the best path on their own. Help the veteran understand their blind spots by asking probing questions about a situation or circumstance. For example, if the veteran is angry about something happening at their job, ask how those people are incentivized, what their jobs are, how they are paid (commission versus hourly versus salary, etc), what the veteran’s relationship is to the person, etc. You may help them better understand work dynamics and how to navigate them.
- Talk about the mentor relationship and what to expect.. It’s important that the veteran feel comfortable and safe. If they feel that they may “owe” the mentor something, they may not be as forthcoming or honest. Additionally, they may feel awkward unless they know how to address you (“sir”, “Jim”, “Ms. Smith”, etc) and why. Make them comfortable with the familiarity and make sure they know it’s because it’s an important relationship to you.
- Honor your time commitments to the mentee. This relationship is one of the most important a veteran can have, but it will be worthless if it isn’t consistent over time. Generally, a mentorship relationship should last a couple of years, if not more.
Follow these principles, and you can help a veteran to know themselves and navigate their transition while reinforcing your own principles.
How to advocate for a veteran
While many people claim to support the troops, few do in as concrete ways as advocates. Veteran advocacy provides meaningful opportunities for veterans by revealing their positive aspects and showing how negative aspects can be trained out or diminished with experience. It calls attention to processes that may discriminate against veterans and helps to raise awareness for veterans issues.
Advocacy provides a veteran with a critical voice in decisions after they’ve left the room. Advocacy doesn’t just happen in hiring processes; it can happen
- for promotions,
- for friends’ groups,
- for philanthropic organizations,
- in courtrooms,
- in legislative sessions,
- in therapy groups,
- and many other locations.
Any place you can talk to civilians about the value of a specific veteran is a good place to practice advocacy.
Advocating for veterans can take on many forms. Generally, it will fall into a few different categories:
- Translating jargon into valuable information. If you can take the time to learn what a veteran is talking about and translate it to more useful terms, you can communicate a veteran’s experience much more clearly.
- Giving context to transition issues. If a veteran seems to be struggling, especially during the first few months following separation, it’s important for people to know that so they can be a little more compassionate and patient. It’s likely that the veteran just needs a little more support to bring their strengths to bear.
- Promoting a veteran for training investment. Veterans constantly learned new skills in the military and were expected to apply them almost immediately. Unfortunately, few of these skills translate well to civilian life, but the ability to learn translates very well. Veterans also demonstrate tremendous loyalty for those that invest in them. By investing in a veteran’s education or skill development, you will earn an eager, hard-working asset to your company.
- Making a veteran more welcome by speaking well of them in social groups when they aren’t around. A veteran has rarely had a chance to develop a good reputation, and as difficult as transition is, it’s easy for a veteran to make mistakes. Taking efforts to point out the good qualities a veteran has when they aren’t around can keep people’s minds open and prevent them from writing off a veteran prematurely.
- Understanding both what veterans want and what would be best for them. Both of these things are important, especially when they come into conflict. If you have agreed to advocate for a veteran, you should be clear with that person what you plan to advocate for and why. If what you say somehow conflicts with their goals, it will be worse than if you hadn’t done anything. This is one reason why advocacy often goes well with mentorship. In mentorship, you will get to know the veteran well.
Many civilians want to show support for military veterans, but not many know exactly how to do so. By mentoring, advocating, and befriending veterans, civilians, like you can provide more value to the veterans, their communities, and their countries. It’s the most patriotic thing you can do for your veteran neighbors.
So what should you do right now? Right now, write down a goal to talk to and befriend 3 veterans. Put it in your calendar and on your refrigerator. Then go online and find a place that probably has veterans, such as your local university, or contact HR to ask them to send veterans your way.
With your support, we can help veterans find success.