Five years after founding The Gratitude Campaign, I've received over 10,500 e-mails, and 1,500 comments on YouTube. It seems that there is a lot to talk about with regard to gratitude for those who serve; not the least of which is the ever present challenge of understanding how to keep the politics out of it. Hopefully this blog will give us an opportunity for some rational, reasonable, and respectful discussion. I hope you'll join us...

~Scott Truitt, FOUNDER


Tuesday, August 2, 2011

On "They/We Will Never Understand"

I’ve been working on thegratitudecampaign for nearly four years now. In that time I’ve the honor and privilege to have many conversations with those who serve and their family members about what serving is like, and what kinds of sacrifices they make on our behalf every day.

Part of my goal with this campaign is to bridge the gap between civilians and service members and their families. I’ve asked on several occasions, “What do you, as service members and military families, most wish that civilians understood about what military life is like?” The one comment, or phrase that seems to be uttered in nearly every response is, “Anyone who hasn’t served will never understand what it’s like.” I hear similar comments from the other side – civilians saying, “I can’t imagine what it is like.” After hearing this as many times as I have, I felt the need to address it – on both sides of the conversation (or lack thereof, as the case may be). So I have a request – or perhaps a challenge for people on both sides:

Try anyway.

For military members and their families: Try to explain what your life is like – what you’re going through, or have gone through. It’s not about asking for sympathy or pity. It’s simply about understanding. It’s about helping people to understand what they don’t currently see. And you’re absolutely right – anyone who hasn’t experienced what you’ve experience will not understand it on an intellectual or emotional level that is equal to your understanding. But a little understanding is better than no understanding. And they truly never will understand if nobody is willing to help them understand.

For civilians: Ask questions. Try to put yourself in their shoes (or boots, as the case may be). Try to picture yourself dealing with all of the stresses that military families deal with on a daily basis on your behalf. And show them the respect of acknowledging that you don’t completely understand, but that you’ll do the best that you can to identify with what they’re going through.

Gary Sinise, who has launched a foundation to support those who serve and their families, recently said in a press conference, “We can never do enough to support those who serve, but we can always do a little more.”

My personal friend, Master Sergeant Kevin Johnson, who appears in our video, would share with me his experiences in combat and in life since combat. For my part, I always prefaced my questions by saying, “Kevin, I haven’t been there and done that, so I have no way of truly understanding what you’ve been through. But I promise to try to the best of my ability. I won’t judge, pity, or presume to tell you how you should be dealing with what you’ve experienced. I will simply try to understand.”

For Kevin’s part, he would do his best to relate what he had experienced, knowing full well that that my imagination is not the same as his personal experience. He would say to me, “You’re not going to get what I’m about to tell you, but you need to understand it as best you can in order to do what you’re doing.” Not so amazingly, it was often the long silences between Kevin’s sentences that told me the most about what he had experienced.

Kevin died in November of last year from liver failure brought on by the heavy drinking he did to medicate his struggle with Post Traumatic Stress. If I were going to do anything to show respect for Kevin’s life, for his service and sacrifices on my behalf, it has to start with understanding who he was and what he experienced as best I can.

Knowledge is power. Understanding can change the world. Millions of people who don’t have AIDS or Cancer, who’ve never been beaten or abused, who’ve never lost their home in a flood or fire, or who’ve never been sold into slavery or the sex trade are doing powerful work every day to change those things so that those who have experienced them will find some peace, and so that fewer people will experience those things in the future. They were inspired to do so because someone who does have personal experience with those things told their story. And they listened, and tried to understand.

So please, tell your stories. Listen to others’ stories. That’s how we begin to change the world.


  1. My son was deployed to Afghanistan October 2010 through May 2011. I did not understand how hard it would be beginning with the conversation on the last day I would see him before he left. The conversation was based on what he needed to have happen if he would not return beginning with my making sure that his wife continued with her dreams and not let his death crush her. He actually went down a list of what he wanted ending with "you and dad can have me (his body)" I then held my breath and prayed every day; several times a day until his feet hit American soil 7 months later. There were many close calls with small arms fire and the constant finding of IED's. It's hard to fathom that there are people on this earth that would rejoice if my son and his guys were maimed or killed.

    Our 'basic' servicemen and women do not get paid much for the sacrifices they make and the hell they live with deployed to a war zone. I'm grateful that our nation seems to respect and support our troops; having said that I am ashamed for the way we treated the troops that survived Vietnam.

    Only one young man from my son's group did not return home as he had planned. He was killed by an IED on December 1, 2010 and I will never forget seeing his family at Camp Pendleton when everyone else's son got to come home. They were there to support and welcome all the boys home and I would only hope I could be as gracious and loving as they are.

    Thank you for all you do to help us understand what being in the military means. From the very bottom of my heart I thank our servicemen and women; they are all heroes in my eyes.

    From a Proud Marine Mom

  2. My husband is a VietNam vet, served 22 1/2 years in the AF. I spent 15 months alone, with a toddler, and gave birth while he was gone. Our second son was 8 months old before his Daddy saw him.
    In those days, there was no way to send email, video or what have you. We wrote daily, sent them email and hoped for a letter in return. Often I would get a weeks worth of letters at a time. You made the most of it, it was his job. We made the choice to be career enlisted military, so there were no complaints when we moved, etc.
    Today, he draws a nice retirement check, and we have great medical coverage. I have had people make rude comments about how it "must be nice." Well, it is nice now but we paid a great price for it over the years.
    My heart goes out to those men and women who are apart from their loved ones. The ones who miss the birth of a new baby, a holiday celebration, a school event. I greatly admire those men and women who keep things going at home also. No, you may not understand, you really have to cope with what they are coping with on a daily basis to know what it is like. You can, however, honor them, support them with your vote and come to their aid when needed. Bless each and every military person and those family members that stand in the shadows. Thank you for your sacrifice.

    A proud retired AF wife

  3. When my daughter passed out at basic training, i was the proudest mother on the planet. Saying goodbye to her 4mnths before her 18th birthday was excrutiating. Afghanistan meant nothing to me before she became a soldier but i will never forget 2006 or 2008. personally,for me.. ive never been religious but.. i learnt to pray every day, morning and night.. The Day she left home was one of the most emotional days i will ever experience. Ive never been so scared! and although i wanted so badly for her not to go, I smiled and painted on my mummy face and waved her off, (i mean,its the 21st century,who expects to be waving their child off to go to war) For me, that whole 5mnths was like living in my own waking nightmare... And then i find that theres noone to talk to.. I never really understood the soldier/civvi thing until MY 'baby' was in Afghanistan. People just didn't seem to want to know or want to understand! out of sight out of mind!!
    and thats hard to bear.. Emotionally i was an absolute mess.. no family, no friends, no one to talk to, couldn't watch t.v., listen to the radio, read a newspaper.. and almost died everytime my phone rang. 5mnths is a long time to hold your breath, but thats what it felt like.. Her 2nd tour was slightly easier as i had by this time discovered like minded people on the internet, oh and eblueys. I am so very proud of her and all her commrades.. our troops belong to all of us, and i respect each and every one of them.. God Bless them and keep them Safe..

  4. My son was deployed to Afghanistan in early 2009 and like the comments before this one, as his mom, I can identify with the stress it brings to his extended family...my marriage suffered from my constant concern, my attention to my son's communication...if he was on line, I was on line...he went thru the pain of losing his young marriage while he was deployed (common problem) and he needed someone to talk to many times...with his time zone exactly 12 hours ahead..a lot of his down time came after midnight for me..and I was here on the computer...dead tired for 7 months, but he came home safe, and after some time, has healed from his lost relationship..but the toll it takes on everyone who loves a soldier/airman/marine/naval serviceman...is immense

    My husband and I are fine now, but we dread the day my son is deployed again. And now a new concern has surfaced...the retirement he was promised is proposed for significant changes...if you haven't heard about this below is the link that shows an outline of the changes, basically it addresses the fact that the current system is too expensive and not in line with retirement in the civilian realm...however, it seems to me, that these service members deserve what they were promised. DBB_Military_Retirement_Final_Presentationpdf.pdf,


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