As I was doing my weekly content creation/search for our various social media outlets, I came across an article written by Amy Williams, who was chosen this past Summer to participate in the George W. Bush Institute’s Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program.
Amy works with the Post-9/11 veteran population, but she has never served and was never a military spouse. In her blog article for the Institute, she describes feeling rather intimidated being among this select group of non-profit, business, education and other leaders from across the country because she hadn't served. She didn't have that experience of everything from "Boot Camp" on up to a military family experiencing a PCS (permanent change of station - basically military jargon for "moving").
I've felt that intimidation as well admittedly - especially in the early efforts of HKY4Vets. Not by any fault of the service member or the military spouse, but simply that nagging sense of "How can I (or we) help them if I truly do not know what they have been through or experienced?" or "Do they [veterans] think less of me because my Forward Operating Base (FOB) has been in an office in Hickory for the last 12 years?"
But as HKY4Vets has progressed and we have continued to build relationships among military AND civilian partners all committed to improving the lives of military families, I have realized my initial fears were misplaced, with so much of them subsiding with each veteran I have met or had the pleasure to work alongside, particularly through our HKY4Vets Steering Committee (most of which served in the Armed Forces).
And if I really reflect on it - and I hope others can take this and build from it - there are some key priorities always to remember when that same intimidation or fear keeps you from helping, from taking the first step or reaching out to our veteran and military families:
Veterans were people before they entered the service and they remain people in that service and beyond. Their life experiences have surely been different, but their hopes and needs differ very little from your own.
Authenticity matters. Being uneducated about all aspects of the military (it's A LOT!) and not knowing the language is completely fine. Acknowledge and embrace that through constant education and efforts to learn, yet you will never truly know all of it.
Sincerity matters. I am passionate about serving those who have served - it's a small way for me to help in my little corner of the world. I hope that desire to help military families immediately and earnestly comes across in every interaction I have with a veteran. My experience has shown that it does - and when it does, all those metaphorical walls I feared immediately come down.
Honor and respect their sacrifice, but know the limitations: Miller smartly writes in her blog, "I would argue that idolizing veterans and thanking them for THEIR service can also widen the divide between civilians and military." I would agree very much. I am sure many veterans appreciate your acts kindness and acknowledgement (and this should be done), but at the same time dig deeper - no one person on this Earth can be defined by just one "label". Remember, veterans are people first and last....get to know the PERSON.
Build better relationships with the Veterans you DO KNOW. I suspect each of us personally or professionally have at least 1 or many more veterans in our lives . As I mentioned earlier, my comfort has grown as I have gotten to know more of the veterans on our Steering Committee. They are a fun group and my time spent with them is a good time - but I always learn a great deal too.
Now, I will admit that feeling will probably never really go away. But that's okay - I think it makes me better at helping to lead this effort and looking for more ways to assist military families - because I am not resting back, I (and the HKY4Vets Team) are always reading, learning, talking with thought leaders, etc. in an effort to know more and ready ourselves to help that next Soldier, Marine, Airmen, military spouse, etc.