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Listen to a Veteran!

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First published June 9, 2015 at

By Paula J. Caplan

War trauma. Rape trauma. Trauma from other kinds of violence, poverty, oppression. Trauma from automobile, train, bus, and airplane accidents. Trauma from natural disasters.

In some cultures, the community considers itself responsible for helping traumatized people deal with the trauma, reconnect with the community, and find meaning and delight in their lives. In too many cultures, we ship traumatized people off, telling them that their anguish is mental illness and to talk to therapists -- and please close door behind you, so we don't have to hear about it -- and take their drugs.

As I wrote years ago in "The Astonishing Power of Listening" -- click here -- a beautifully simple, nontechnical act that requires no training and no degrees is respectful, silent listening. When done with 100% of one's attention and one's whole heart, it has been shown by research we did at Harvard Kennedy School and since then to be helpful, often powerfully moving, and effective in reducing emotional suffering and heading toward a better future.

Starting June 10, every three days up to the Fourth of July, a Public Service Announcement with the message "Listen to a Veteran!" will be rolled out on Facebook (When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home page) and Twitter (Paula J Caplan).
Listen to a Veteran! t-shirt
Listen to a Veteran! t-shirt
(Image by Paula J Caplan)
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The "Thank a veteran for their service" campaign took off like wildfire, with nonveterans in the U.S. -- who make up 93% of the population -- jumping on board, feeling like now they knew what they needed to do, and rushing up to veterans in airports and on sidewalks, saying, "Thank you for your service!" Some veterans tell me they appreciate that statement. Others tell me they actively dislike it, because, in the words of one, "It's like a hit-and-run. They race up, say their thanks, and race away. They feel they've done their bit, and that's the end of it. They don't know what I have experienced, and they don't indicate that they want to know." Still others have told me, heartbreakingly, "If they knew what I had done, they wouldn't thank me."

We need to go beyond "Thank you for your service." We need to stop believing the myth that all veterans are mentally ill and that therefore only therapists can help...and that therefore there is nothing anyone else can do, so they can just turn away.

It is an important civic responsibility, whatever the veteran's politics and whatever the nonveteran's politics, for every nonveteran just to listen to a veteran -- in Veterans Homes, other nursing homes, hospice facilities, on campuses, in social and community and faith-based settings. Ninety-three percent of Americans are military-illiterate, having never served. And even more of us are war-illiterate. As citizens, when we decide whether to support or oppose the next war and the next and the next, we need to know viscerally what that means, and the most valuable way to learn is by listening to a veteran. Nonveterans who have done a listening session tell us -- -- that the listening has transformed their lives for the better, creating an important connection with a veteran, destroying the negative stereotypes they believed about veterans, and in hearing how the veteran confronted matters of life and death and moral angush, learned about the veteran's humanity and about their own.

Copyright 2015 by Paula J. Caplan All rights reserved
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Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D., is an advocate, activist, clinical and research psychologist, and awardwinning nonfiction author and playwright. She is Associate at the DuBois Institute, Harvard University, and a past Fellow in the Harvard Kennedy (more...)

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