Task & Purpose recently published an article for soldiers, issuing advice on how to handle civilians who ask the dreaded, “Did you ever kill anyone?” question. While their advice is sound on how to handle the situation from the view point of someone being asked, it does little to offer advice towards friends and family of current and former service members.
Civilians are understandably curious as to what really happens in combat, it is not something we have ever experienced, or can ever fully comprehend, but when you care about someone who has served, there is somewhat of a self-imposed expectation to try to understand. The hardest part of that need to understand is trying to start the conversation, knowing what to ask, and in this case what not to ask.
While some soldiers may be willing to divulge this intimate detail to their nearest and dearest, for most service members who have seen combat, this question simply goes beyond trying to understand straight into “none of your damn business.” Although the topic is not completely off the table for some, USMC Veteran, Mr. Veritas summed it up perfectly saying,
“That is a rude, private & personal question to ask of any war zone warrior.”
So how should civilians handle the topic of a loved one’s service?
The most important thing is to be respectful. Keep in mind that anything a soldier does share should be taken much like a story in history class, it is not for you to judge, question motives on, or use for ammunition in later conversation.
For friends or acquaintances, it’s probably best to lead with something like, “So you were in the Army? What was that like?” If they want to share they will, if not they won’t, and that should really be the end of it.
If you are close with a soldier however; sometimes that just doesn’t get it, and generally it’s ok to be a little more forward. Let them know you are interested, ask if they are willing to discuss with you, and let them guide the conversation for the most part.
If there’s something you feel like you need to know, even the dreaded “kill“ question, make sure you ask if it is alright to ask. Do NOT just assume or put them on the spot. Remember that there are parts of service and particularly combat that no warrior is proud of and they may not be willing to confide. It is not a personal affront towards you.
Finally, keep in mind that whatever is shared, regardless of relationship or circumstance is for your knowledge only, and is not to be shared unless specific consent was given.