Last month we heard a presentation from the Marines on the SMVF TA Center team who provided us with additional insight into their perspectives and experiences.  As a civilian, I have always found it helpful to hear from service members, veterans, or their family members because the fact is, from the moment they enter the service, their experiences are very different than our civilian experiences.

When you watch shows like Band of Brothers, The Pacific, or Generation Kill (a mini-series about a unit in Iraq that spearheaded the invasion of Iraq that Nick discussed) you have a chance to get a small glimpse into the grueling determination, sacrifice, and physical stamina that goes into being a member of our military. I know myself well enough to know I don’t have that level of stamina or the ability to do what the members of our armed forces do.

This is part of the reason why, since I began working on veterans-specific initiatives in 2007, I have found myself continually impressed with the SMVF with whom I have worked. Overall, they are usually very clear cut. In their view, things are pretty black and white and they don’t want to get caught up in the gray.  They see what needs to be done and they want to get it done.  They don’t want to get caught up in the myriad of red tape that can slow a process down.  Coming from an environment of state politics, laden with power struggle and personalities, I find these attributes to be refreshingly productive.  From a behavioral-health perspective, service members and veterans have also accomplished things that many civilians can’t and, politics aside, they have served our country. Recognizing these strengths can go a long way in establishing civilian/SMVF relationships.  As well, it should not go unnoticed that drawing upon them can be helpful in terms of alleviating the challenges that can emerge post-deployment.

One of the topics that Nick and Gregg presented on were interactions between service members which are often perceived as culturally inappropriate.  When I first began working on the team, the humor was familiar to me because my husband worked as a correction officer when we were first dating.  My husband and I had many discussions early on about why he and his colleagues would talk to each other in such offensive ways.  He felt that they had developed a level of trust among themselves because every day they have to have each other’s backs. Each day that they worked on a tier, there was a chance they could be threatened, hurt, and even killed.  While working in a jail for an 8 hour shift isn’t the same as going war, it does seem to breed a similar type of relationship that breaks down some of the traditional barriers.  Most of us have never worked in jobs where our lives are dependent upon the people we work with, making it more difficult to relate to the hard edge that emerges when trust and confidence in your colleagues is critical to your safety, and even your life.

Another much discussed topic from Nick and Gregg’s presentation was about whether to thank a veteran or not.  As with all cultures, individuals make up the SMVF cultural sub-set, and each individual in that culture needs to be treated as in individual.  As we heard, Nick isn’t comfortable being thanked for his service.  For those of us who work with Nick, that isn’t a big surprise.  Yet, in my own experience, I have encountered many veterans, Vietnam era veterans in particular, who are visibly moved when thanked.

As we progress in our efforts to serve SMVF, it is helpful to find ways to connect, gain insight and learn more.  These types of conversations, even the awkward ones and the ones that include concepts that are foreign to us, help us to better relate to those we are committed to supporting.