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:
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.