How Can Veterans Help Other Veterans Transition Back Into Society

Expert Beacon

By Robert Dingman, EdD April 14, 2015

The Expert Beacon published an article on how veterans can help other veterans. 

Click here for the Expert Beacon online version of the article.


Veterans are members of a specific subcultural group. Like other groups, veterans report greater comfort speaking with others whom they see as similar to themselves. This is especially true when veterans have difficult memories or feelings to share about their experience as warriors. At such times, they are often emphatic in their desire to speak only with other veterans.

Veterans understand the culture of the military, the unique language, the important values and traditions taught there, as well as the stresses of war. Veterans helping other veterans is also significant in that there is a reciprocal benefit. The helper is often helped considerably to be in such an appreciated and supportive role, and feels great meaning in helping a brother or sister in arms.

Do

  • Understand what resources are available for veterans
  • Be curious
  • Know when to share your story
  • Make yourself available

Don't

  • Assume
  • Be afraid to ask about the transition
  • Walk on eggshells
  • Give unsolicited advice

Do

Do understand what resources are available for veterans

Learn about the services that are available locally and get involved. In particular, learn about non-profit organizations and professional peer support programs. Asking a veteran to join you in an activity in which you are already involved is much more likely to help than simply steering a veteran that way.

Do be curious

Be curious when talking with fellow veterans about their military service and give them lots of time to talk. Ask about where, when, and with whom they served. Be sure to ask about their training and accomplishments. Ask a veteran what it has been like coming back to civilian life and give him/her plenty of time to tell their story before relating yours.

The difficult part about being a good listener--whether you are a veteran or a civilian--is to not shift the conversation to talking about oneself. There's plenty of time for that later, when the veteran you are speaking with has related his/her service story.

Do know when to share your story

When the time is right, share your process of coming home from war. Share the details about how you managed to get through the first weeks and months, how you coped, and what resources you turned to help you get though. It is fine to share the lessons you have learned after the veteran you are speaking with has had time to open up.

Do make yourself available

Give a veteran your phone number or email, and invite him/her to reach out to you. Better yet, invite a veteran to do something active with you, to get involved, to take on a project or lend a hand. Having a "mission" with a fellow vet will mean the world to that person.

Don't

Do not assume

Don't assume that a veteran has had the same military experience as you--even if he or she served in the same branch, held the same rank, or fought in the same war. Each person's experience is unique, as is the sense he or she makes of what happened.

Likewise, don't assume that you understand exactly how it has been for another veteran who experienced similar things as you did in the military, or that his/her return to civilian life is exactly like yours. Every person brings prior life experience to their military service that colors the meaning of military life.

Do not be afraid to ask about the transition

Don't be afraid to ask a veteran what it is like to get back to regular civilian life. This is a hard process for many veterans--and knowing that it is okay to talk about it to another veteran will be a big relief.

Do not walk on eggshells

Saying it like it is with a veteran that you think is struggling may do a lot to help him or her open up about feelings that are important -- but hard to share.

D o not give unsolicited advice

Advice is almost always more welcome once a veteran, or any person, knows that you care and understand what it is like for him or her.

Summary

Veterans helping other veterans is becoming recognized around the country as a powerful tool to assist in recovery from trauma, from the losses and injuries of war, and in the process of coming home to family and civilian life. While it has proven to be extremely impactful, veterans who are thinking about how they can help fellow veterans cope with the transition should know how to go about it.

Note: Arthur Serino III also contributed to this information, a student veteran at William James College.