December 3, 2016

Stop asking how many people I’ve killed

“Oh, you were in the military? Did you kill anyone? So, do you have PTSD?”

Anyone reading this would agree these are messed up questions to ask a person, but believe me, I get them all the time when meeting new people—and I’m talking like the first question out of their mouths when they find out I was in the military.

I served in the Marine Corps for four years. In that time I deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan. I experienced things during those firefights that I don’t talk about with anyone who isn’t a trained psychologist. I like to think I’ve come to terms with what I was involved in, but being forced to talk about it with strangers makes that hard. For me to speak about my experiences requires me to have an intimate trust with the person, or for them to be going through the same thing.

The Veteran’s Affairs government website states that between 11-20 percent of all service members involved in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom are diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This fact shows a frighteningly large number of our veterans are struggling with these issues on a daily basis.

I understand that it’s human nature to be curious about gruesome topics and heroic war stories; I’ll admit I’m guilty of that too. But when you ask about someone’s combat history, the answer will dramatically change your perception of the person. In my experience, there are really only three types of “yes” answers that can come from this line of questioning:

Yes, they may have taken lives in combat, but the issue weighs heavily on them and it is really not something they want to think about.

No, they haven’t killed anyone, but they are lying to either sound cool or because they are afraid you will think less of them. (In my experience this is by far the largest response.)

Yes, these are the people they have killed, but they have made peace with it in their own way, though they still would prefer not to discuss it. (This tends to be the smallest percentage.)

I’ve found the best way to answer questions about combat is to just say as politely as possible, “I would rather not talk about it.” That response becomes useful in the case it really is something the person is dealing with, or even if they haven’t experienced it personally, but have respect for those that have. Of course, saying, “I don’t want to talk about it” will immediately confirm to ignorant questioners that you did kill someone, and that you are probably a lunatic.

This issue doesn’t only pertain to civilians. Sometimes military people size up other service members based on what they did in a war environment. Only rarely can something good come from that kind of questioning, which is in the case that they are offering support to the people who need it.

But personally, I feel that the people who ask intrusive questions about soldiers’ experiences are just caught up in the romanticized version of war they’ve formed from popular media their entire lives. We as a country glorify war, and it is pointless to argue against that. The problem is people are oblivious and don’t realize how deeply questions can hurt a person, regardless of whether or not they saw combat.

A new study published in the Annals of Epidemiology’s February issue found that of the approximately 1,282,000 Americans who served in the military in Iraq and Afghanistan, 22 commit suicide every day. These numbers do not pertain solely to those suffering from PTSD, but they are a significant factor to consider.

Would you feel okay meeting a rape victim and asking them in a casual setting if they have any negative feelings about their experience? Of course you wouldn’t, because it is a very serious issue and can dredge up horrific memories that can send the victim into a spiral of depression. Rape and combat are very different, very serious issues, but PTSD can affect anyone—and the cause doesn’t have to be seeing combat. Questions can trigger any kind of painful memory.

I’m not asking for some big campaign or tons of people to share this—I’m just looking for general awareness on a subject nobody seems comfortable bringing up. If you meet a veteran, please keep their feelings in mind, and realize that even though they went to war, they are still human, and may be very sensitive about the subject. We still have tons of hilarious and interesting stories to tell, if you take the time to listen.

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