To many Americans, Memorial Day is the symbolic kickoff to the summer season—a welcome three-day weekend and time for a family trip. So it can be easy to miss the intention of this holiday, which is actually to honor the American military members who died while serving our country.
Since 9/11, we’ve deployed over 2.5 million military members to Iraq and Afghanistan for Operations Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, and New Dawn. Currently there are just under 2 million active duty men and women in the US military, and approximately 850,000 in the reserves. Given that these conflicts are fought by an all-volunteer service of about 1% of the U.S. population, it’s understandable that some Americans may not be attuned to the experience of the men and women who serve. But we are talking about millions of families, many of whom have made great sacrifices. One of the most important things we can do for them on Memorial Day is to take the time to pause and acknowledge their hard work and bravery.
I worked with active duty military members and retired veterans at a VA hospital for 3 years, where I helped to develop and conduct research on ways to help returning veterans and their families. The research that I’ve reviewed over the years, along with some candid advice veterans have shared with me, can provide helpful guidelines for how civilians can support our military members and their families this Memorial Day.
What we know
The Vietnam War taught us a lot about the harmful effects of social stigma and community exclusion on returning service members. Studies have shown that negative homecomings can be particularly harmful to trauma recovery and interfere with the transition to civilian life. On the other hand, community involvement can reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is actually true for anyone who experiences a traumatic event; negative social reactions are associated with increased symptoms of PTSD.
Civilians can make a difference by paying attention to how we respond to returning veterans. In a study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, Dr. Jeremiah Schumm and a team of researchers found that veterans have higher rates of PTSD and depression if they felt like they were outsiders, felt socially disapproved of, or believed that others do not understand post-deployment struggles. These authors also found that veterans were more likely to be depressed if they experienced low levels of recognition, help, and sympathy in response to traumatic experiences. In the same journal issue, Dr. David Fink and team found that returning Army members’ perceptions of personal support from friends and family was critical to having a positive transition from combat to home, and that soldiers who perceived a stigma or barriers to seeking behavioral healthcare were less likely to experience a positive transition.
So what exactly can you do to support military members and their families and promote a healthy transition post-deployment? Everyone is different, but here are some rules of thumb I learned from working with dozens of veterans, reservists, and activity duty service members, all of whom I think of so fondly this time of year.
- Acknowledge people who have been deployed, be it your neighbor, distant relative, friend, or colleague. Say something to the service members themselves, like “It’s so good to see you home with us again. What are you up to this weekend?” or to their family, “I know your son was deployed last year, and I’m so happy he’s back home now,” or “I know your uncle died in combat, and I’m so very sorry for your loss.”
- Sometimes we thank military members for their service (anecdotally, I’ve noticed that younger veterans are less interested in a thank you, but older veterans are more appreciative), but let’s also remember to thank their families. Kids and spouses make huge sacrifices to support their deployed family member.
- Be available to talk and listen about things in general, including the important aspects of returning to everyday life—job, hobbies, activities, etc. A simple, “How are you doing” or “How’s the job search going?” can be very comforting.
- Offer a job if you or someone you know is hiring.
- Engage in community activities. Some military members return to a huge network of friends and family; others do not. Arrange outings to baseball games, museums (though many returning veterans I worked with were initially averse to crowds), or the movies.
- Offer help in specific ways. Rather than saying “Let me know if I can help…” say, “I’d like to babysit for you this weekend—you deserve a night out.”
- Ask for specific details about combat.
- Ask a military member if he/she has shot or killed someone.
- Discuss politics.
- Confuse branches of the military. Army = Soldiers, Navy = Sailors, Marines = Marine, and Air Force = Airmen. When in doubt, use the terms “service member”, “military”, or “veteran”, which apply to all groups.
We all have a duty to do what’s right by our service members. I would like to thank all military members for their bravery, sacrifice, and capacity to tolerate discomfort. I know it wasn’t all bad, and I know you didn’t do it for me. Still, I’m grateful. To family members—spouses and children and parents—you endured a great deal to support your family member’s service, and we are most appreciative of your courage.