Bridging the Gap Between Veteran and Civilian Culture
By Valerie Taylor
What’s the difference between them and me? You have probably found yourself thinking that once or twice now that you have transitioned from the military back into society. Those you question would be the civilians. You spent a sizable portion of your prime protecting them. Serving from afar. Being heroes and heroines. Yet, now that you are amongst these people, a divide continues to exist.
Here are some things we nonmilitary folk wish you knew so that you could feel less alienated upon separation.
The Civilian-Military Divide
The line begins with some obvious differences: you served in the armed forces, I did not. For example, let’s say you hypothetically served from 19-25. You have lived through serious rigors, both of mind and body. You adapted to discipline, criticism, and perils civilians will never understand. Rather than being evaluated on your productivity, your physical prowess and technical knowledge received a grade. Uniform and weapon maintenance were your priority. Motivation to survive in the heat of battle was what drove you, day in and out.
For me, a civilian, from 19-25 years old my rigors were dealing with bullying, studying for college, and working two different jobs. I had to adapt to be street smart and budget food so I could live paycheck-to-paycheck. My criticism came from professors who didn’t like my Oxford comma, or from those who thought I wasn’t studying enough. My main priority was developing a resume while combating an eating disorder. Motivation to survive a grueling lifestyle was what drove me, day in and out.
With this comparison it becomes all the more clear that although your struggles and mine may be similar,
Mending the Divide
Though we are different, there is a way to close the gap between us. It will take some work, but here are some tips that will make communicating with and comprehending nonmilitary people easier:
1. Civilians Are Not Lazy
Not in the way the army thinks we are, anyway. The armed forces takes people from all walks of life and sculpts them into warriors. Civilians never experience that type of discipline unless it is self-imposed. Even then, the duties a civilian performs throughout the day are not as challenging as what you do within the first 15 minutes of waking at the barracks. Further, I understand that there are few correct options to choose from in the military, and most of the time you don’t have the luxury of paving your own way. You do the thing because you have to, correctly, every single day.
Still, many civilians work two or three jobs to make ends meet, walk the dog, take care of the children, make dinner, and handle everything else that comes up in life. Just because a civilian has a foreign set of priorities does not mean they are performing at a suboptimal level. What the army may also consider a lack of drive or motivation, such as getting stuck at a dead-end job and never striving for anything greater, may simply be how that person is dealing with life as it is now. Beneath the surface, though, they are planning for greatness in a creative way unique to them.
Well, most of us civilians are anyway
2. Do Not Dodge The Question
I get it. Civilians ask the worst questions about serving. Blame on the media for not telling us the truth. Give Hollywood the finger too, for turning military service into an adventure film. But it is not our fault we are curious and trying to understand the truth. Bad memories may rise up, as well as anxiety or fear—but creating a tense, awkward moment only perpetuates the thought that veterans are inexpressive and gruff.
You are allowed to say why you cannot answer the question or that you don’t want to talk about it. Trust me, civilians understand. Ask us to rephrase or to choose a different topic that you would not mind discussing. We will jump on the opportunity to learn more, so help us gain a fuller sense of service.
On the flip side, some civilians have no interest in your war stories. If we do not ask, please refrain.
3. Language Barriers
Military jargon always leaves me stumped. I never know if my veteran friends are serious about the vocabulary, or if they are just joking around. That said, in the casual setting, dropping some slang is cool. A cultural exchange, even. And I’m sure that there are buzz words civilians use that knit your brows together too.
But in the workplace, that stuff is not going to fly. The corporate dictionary excludes military vernacular in favor of more professional, respectful, and inclusive alternatives. In other words, you need to dumb down what you say to Human Resources and hiring managers just a bit, and use words that are used by both civilians and military. Being able to translate your military jargon will be seen as a plus, because it shows you know how to effectively communicate.
So what does this all narrow down to? Patience, tolerance, and a willingness to meet me halfway. I know it sounds hokey, but it’s true. Misunderstandings and altercations can be resolved if we just learned to show more patience towards one another.
Civilians and members of the armed forces have many differences in philosophy and lifestyle. But for every piece that is different, we share something–our humanity. With a little tolerance and understanding, the civilian-military divide can be stitched up. Keep an open mind, and the civilians around you will too.