After Afghanistan: How to Support the Military and Veteran Community

Following the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, many military service members and veterans reported experiencing a range of challenging, and perhaps conflicting, emotions. For civilians who may be concerned about military and veteran friends or family, or for those who are looking for ways to offers support, it is important to remember that some ways of engaging are better than others.

We spoke with Jenny D’Olympia, PsyD, LMHC, and student and soldier Kevin Lambert about military service; military and veteran mental health, including impacts relating to the withdrawal from Afghanistan; and about what actions civilians should, or shouldn’t, take when trying to show support.

D’Olympia is the director of the College’s Military and Veterans Psychology concentration and Train Vets to Treat Vets program, assistant chair of the Counseling and Behavioral Health Department, and the director of the Master of Arts in Psychology program. She spent nine years in the Air Force, serving several deployments, including two to Afghanistan, before going back to school and to pursue her career in mental health.

Lambert is a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and Human Services student, a member of the TVTV program, and a TVTV program development assistant. He served in the Army for three years, including spending 16 months on deployment in Iraq.

Here are their thoughts, along with advice, about how to support military and veterans.

Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What are some misconceptions civilians may have about veterans or military service members?

Dr. Jenny D’Olympia: Some people perceive, incorrectly, that veterans and military service members are dangerous or scary people to be around. We’re regular human beings. We’re, actually, really good at operating in a high stress environment. We’re good at leadership, we’re highly resilient, highly competent. Even if it’s a thing we know a little bit about, we’re willing and able to do what needs to be done to get the job done.

Kevin Lambert: One thing I learned coming home is people saw us either as ‘the homeless veteran on the street’ or a highly-successful person. There was no in between for a lot of people. They didn’t really look at us for the skills that we bring to the table. Firstly, many people thought everybody was a soldier, so they didn’t know the difference between Air Force, Navy, Marines. Secondly, they thought everybody was kicking down doors and fighting a war. They didn’t realize when I joined the war in 2004, the Army had 250-something jobs you could choose from and maybe ten of them involved direct combat.

JD: A perception that some people have is that we all have post-traumatic stress disorder and that we’re wholly incapable of functioning in the world. Sure, many of us may have post-traumatic stress disorder, but that’s not necessarily a thing that keeps us from functioning. It may be what drives us to our mission to do great things in the world. Another misperception people have is that all veterans and service members are men. That’s not the case at all. Women are involved, and have been involved, in all of our conflicts for a long time. In fact, women are the fastest growing minority population in the military and currently make up about 20 percent of all new recruits.

What advice do you have for civilians interacting with members of the military?

JD: You should not make any assumptions. Questions like, “Did you kill anybody? Did you see any dead people?” are particularly traumatic questions. In general, people understand not to ask about other traumatic experiences, but not necessarily when it comes to the military. Because the media and movies have made roles in the military look so extreme and glamorous, people may want to ask about it, but it’s really not appropriate.

JD: It’s also not appropriate to just assume that any given person you’re talking to is or isn’t a military service member or veteran. Anyone could have been in the service. You also don’t know how they identify with that service. It’s up to that person how they feel about it, what they do about it, and how they connect with it. Some people might really identify with their history in the military, some people may never want to talk about it again or may not want to reconnect with it for a really long time. Some may not want to be thanked for their service; or they may perceive that their experience in service was just a job. They did what they needed to do to get from one day to the next and they don’t particularly feel like they’re a hero, so pointing that out might make people uncomfortable.

KL: When we’re coming into the civilian world, it’s hard because the military was a part of our life. It’s helped to build who we are today, but it doesn’t define everything about us. Sometimes we don’t want to talk about it, and we don’t need to. Asking certain questions, especially in public forums, is probably one of the most inappropriate ways of communicating with veterans. For example, when you’re at the supermarket, or in the middle of your office at a meeting, and you just want to know something for your own curiosity, that’s probably not a good time to ask veterans those types of questions.

How might the recent events in Afghanistan be affecting military and veteran populations?

JD: That’s a tough question for sure. I think a lot of our veteran and military service members have done what was asked of them by the people who are in charge and have taken us into Afghanistan. What’s hard is hearing people talking about, “What are they doing over there? Why did they do this?” or “Why didn’t they do that?” I think our veterans don’t necessarily know how feel, and they may feel mixed about it. They probably don’t want to talk about it right now, or maybe for a long time. War is messy. Bad things happen before, during and after and there may not be a better way to remove ourselves from an occupation. Our service members do the best they can until they are told the war is over, and then they pack up and go back home and try to fit back into their lives. These service members don’t sit around looking for places to go to war, or negotiating the end of wars.

KL: What a lot of people don’t realize is that many of us who served in Iraq went through the same challenges, thoughts and difficulties as those who served in Afghanistan, but it wasn’t so publicized or as extreme. Both Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans deal with a sense of betrayal: our allies who we worked with and who relied on us for safety were deserted. It was seen publicly in the case of the withdrawal in Afghanistan. It wasn’t seen so publicly in Iraq, but it happened.

If someone wants to know more about the events in Afghanistan, what would you suggest?

JD: Instead of approaching every military or veteran person and asking them to be their historian for the day, if people want to know more specifically about Afghanistan, they should probably get some good history books or watch some of the specials. We went there and we did what we needed to do, now civilians have some of the responsibility to think about how to do this differently next time and choose elected officials who can help make that happen.

How can friends and family of veterans support the veterans in their life without being insensitive or overstepping?

JD: Something we can do is a Buddy Check. Call and say, “How are you? I think things might be difficult and if you need someone to talk to, I’m here, I’m available.” But asking specific questions about the event is not helpful. Just letting people know that you’re available and that you will help them find resources if that’s necessary is something that can be really helpful.

KL: If you see your veteran spouse or child or neighbor, whoever it may be, is different or maybe struggling, there are ways to help. You don’t need details, you don’t need to fulfill your own curiosity, but asking if somebody is alright can go a long way. Somebody said many years ago to me, “Veterans don’t really care how much you know. We just want to know that you care.” I’m a big believer: when you’re a direct family member, you can’t be the one to fix somebody—your emotions are involved, it’s complex—but you can provide them with some hope and make sure you’re aware of resources.

What advice do you have for veterans or military service members who may be struggling right now?

JD: Talk to someone. Don’t isolate. If you isolate it creates a spiral of depression: the worse you feel, the harder it is to get up, the harder it is to connect. Try just one little thing to connect. That first week, call anyone on your list of people who you feel connected to. The next week, call two people. The week after, call three people. Call the same person three times, if you need to. Whatever it is that you can do to walk out of that ‘spiral of feeling bad’ can be helpful. Being connected to people and finding a mission and meaning in the world is something that can help you get out of that cycle as well. Don’t be afraid to connect or to ask for help.

KL: The biggest message I’ve always tried to pass on is, if you’re experiencing negative thoughts, don’t feel like you’re the only one with these thoughts or these challenges. I think, sometimes, we start to struggle with things, but don’t say them to our buddies because we think, “They’re so strong and I don’t want them to judge me.” Then you say it and you start this conversation. Next thing you know, you have a group of 20 people all having and sharing these same thoughts and feelings but who haven’t previously shared them with each other.

If you need immediate assistance or are experiencing a crisis, connect with a qualified Veterans Crisis Line responder for free, confidential help 24/7. Call 800-273-8255 and press 1 or find more contact options here. Additional mental health resources for military and veterans are available at the William James College Resource Hub.

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