To all vets, military families and active duty service members, let me tell you with great certainty that the majority of U.S. citizens do not know us. By that I mean that during the past decade, more than 99 percent of this country has never served in the military- and even fewer have a military family connection.
A 2011 Pew Research Center survey found that while 77 percent of adults ages 50 and older said they had an immediate family member serve in the military, only 57 percent of those ages 30-49 say they have an immediate family member who served. That number drops significantly to one-third among those ages 18-29.
I'm the biggest proponent of asking civilians to get to know us. But I've learned that's not going to happen on its own. If you are a veteran, you owe it to yourself to talk about your background and brag about the accomplishments of your peers. Take the time to learn how to explain what it is that you do (or have done) and how that has impacted your view of the world.
I understand that this may not be as simple as it sounds. In an op-ed published in The Washington Post, clinical and research psychologist Paula Caplan outlined three reasons why veterans may not be verbose about their experiences:
• They don't want to upset civilians with what they've seen and/or done;
• They fear civilians will think they are mentally ill; and
• They worry that civilians just won't understand - and then the chasm will become even greater.
Over the past five years, however, it has been my experience that your neighbors want to understand who you are and how the military has shaped you. While this may be uncomfortable at first, know that research shows that social connectedness is relevant to health, and social interactions are now being considered as one avenue that could have beneficial effects on health.
Those neighbors also want to lend a hand. They can provide you with feedback on your resume, make introductions on your behalf to networks of contacts, guide you towards local supports and services, and even introduce you to other neighbors with similar interests. It's not a hand-out; it's a hand up.
To those who are listening, I ask that you first be a neighbor. Instead of telling veterans and their families what you've done with your life, step back. Sit back. Listen to their stories. Ask questions. You'll learn what they've done and what their goals are. You'll be able to connect them with community solutions such as a local Easter Seals affiliate. Or if you want to learn how to make the personal connection you can look at the Welcome Johnny and Jane Home Project.
Long before the wars fought by any of our living veterans, writer and editor Samuel Johnson put pen to paper and wrote, "silence propagates itself, and the longer talk has been suspended, the more difficult it is to find anything to say."
We veterans would be wise to remember that, even if it goes against some unspoken military code.