Helping Soldiers Come Home

Whether it's a friend, loved one, or complete stranger, you can make a difference in your community by helping veterans and their families when they return from combat or other stressful situations related to their military service. Here's how.

June 1, 2011

One of the things that I talk to real estate professionals about all the time is the need to have significance in the lives of consumers beyond the transaction. People don’t live in a bubble. Transactions happen for a variety of reasons, and those reasons play heavily into the process.

What I want to address here is the military family — and particularly those who have a loved one returning from war.

I grew up as a military brat and then married a Navy man, so I spent much of the first part of my life steeped in military culture on base after base, moving every year or two. As such, I have extensive experience with that culture. Also, when I started my real estate career, many of the people I worked with were members of the Navy and Coast Guard.

As a child, I didn’t realize the significance of my mother’s work in the military, but as a military wife, I was proud to “hold down the fort” while my husband was at sea. Make no mistake, the families of military veterans serve their country as much as the veterans themselves. They live a solitary existence with brief periods of connection with their partner or parent — always living with the fear that their loved one may not come home.

It’s hard to be part of the military structure. It is often disorienting — especially when your spouse or parent is on long deployments. The homecoming is tearful — both in joy for the reunion and grief for the lost time together and the knowledge that the service member will be leaving again eventually. And it’s often a challenge because lives have to be adjusted and adapted to accommodate the service member’s return. But when military personnel are coming home after combat, it is especially hard to help them return because of the chasm between their experiences and those of the families at home.

The Importance of Both Sides Being Heard

One of the challenges that my husband and I experienced as a young military couple was this mutual sense of not having our experiences heard and understood. He felt that he had it bad because he couldn’t see me and the people at home. I thought that it was easier for him to be on the submarine because it was a new and complete environment with nothing missing, whereas my life had a big husband-shaped hole in it that I had to fill.

This was a point of contention for us. He felt unheard and so did I. Given how young we were, both were probably true. The fact is, both sides go through difficult times. It’s important to make room for both to hear about the others’ experiences without making the mistake that we made of comparing who had it worse.

What You Can Do

I went to a symposium at Harvard University last month on the topic of how to help war veterans reintegrate into life at home. After listening to the talk, I realized that the military isn’t doing enough to help. After her presentation, I spoke with Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D., author of When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans, and interviewed her on how we as real estate professionals can help spread the word to our communities about this important topic. She gave me some very specific ideas on how to help the veterans integrate back into life at home. I hope you’ll share this information with your clients, friends, and family members. Everyone needs to know these things — military families especially. It is the least we can do to support those who served our country so valiantly.

Advice for Families: It’s Hard — and It’s Not Your Fault

In my discussion with Caplan, she said of veterans returning home, “You should be getting vast amounts of help from the military and the VA — but you’re not. Don’t think that if it’s difficult, it’s your fault. Because it’s not.”

Caplan encourages the public to think about the fact that the military spends weeks getting the service members ready for war — running them through boot camp exercises designed to create a new cultural reality that will help the service member survive in this harsh new environment. But when they come home, there is no equivalent training that helps them to reintegrate into civilian culture again. They are expected to just figure it out on their own. And it is the service members and their families that suffer.

The key to readjustment is communication. This allows everyone to understand what happened during the time they were apart. Family members and military personnel are not going to be able to fully understand each other’s experiences, but they can compassionately listen to each other with the goal of creating a new shared experience of love, trust, and support together. In having this conversation, you can invite each other into a place where your separate experiences can be added into a shared memory.

Advice for Everyone

Don’t ask intrusive, insensitive questions (e.g., “Did you kill anybody?”) And don’t make assumptions about what the service member’s experience was like in the military or about coming home. People handle it very differently. Be a listening ear rather than an adviser, judge, or evaluator.

One of the best ways to invite a conversation is to make space for it. Set aside time when you’ll talk with the service member. You might open a conversation with a question Caplan suggested in her book: “I am an American, so I take some responsibility for what happened to you, and frankly, I will feel better if telling me what you went through is helpful to you.” If it’s a friend or a family member, I might try something along the lines of “How was it for you over there?”

As Caplan wrote in her book, “The best thing that you can do is to make it safe for the vet to talk and hear himself or herself talk. You do this by not saying much and by not saying things that are judgmental or pushy and by not giving advice. Giving advice, especially early on, can destroy the listener’s sense of being understood. Most vets will be quick to recognize a person who is respectful and focused on listening and understanding their story and their perspective. Remember that trust develops gradually as one feels understood. And at some point, it may be all right to ask questions, but it is crucial first for the vet to feel listened to for a long time without feeling rushed, and what they need to say first must be the priority. Feeling understood helps a person strengthen their sense of who they are, so it is good to let who they are emerge in the way it tends to come from the speaker. Related to this, do not try to get the vet’s whole story or even one of the stories all at once and in coherent form. To push for that can overwhelm the teller.”

Caplan also reminds us to remember that the feelings that are coming up may be ones that the service member doesn’t have a name for or isn’t comfortable expressing. She says to allow them to find their own way in their own time.

Holding Space

Holding space for someone to speak is about allowing the entire conversation to be about them — what they say, what they don’t say, and the silences while they think and feel their way through the memories. Patience and an openness to receive and accept whatever they have to offer is the ideal way to create that safety zone. In short, it’s simple: Love them back home.

Share This Message

As an American and a former military dependent, I hope you will make an effort to reach out to military personnel. You don’t have to be family or friends with the service member. You can talk to one of the veterans on the street or in an American Veterans group. You can start the conversation with a “thank you for your service.” Whether you believed in the reasons for a war or not, those people did their duty for their country. They put themselves in harm’s way because our government asked them to. The least we can do is offer them space to tell the story of what they experienced.

For more ideas, check out Chapter 6 of Caplan’s book, in which she offers ideas on how to find a vet to talk to, which questions to ask, and common problems that arise and what to do about them. Also, if you’re interested in reading some of the stories told by veterans and others involved in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are free PDFs of many of their accounts available at The Veteran’s Book Project.

Kelle Sparta is the author ofThe Consultative Real Estate Agent: Building Relationships that Create Loyal Clients, Get More Referrals, and Increase Your Sales(AMACOM, 2005). She is also the founder of Sparta Success Systems , a real estate training company.