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How to Love Someone in the Military Without Loving the Military

Even if you have a hard time supporting the institution, you can still support your loved one.

by Taylor Hartman
March 17, 2021 | Love
two women, one in military uniform and one anti war. rewire pbs love support military
Credit: Olha // Adobe and Seahorsevector // Adobe

Ryan Grzybowski enlisted as a Marine in 2013, just before U.S. forces began responding to the Syrian Civil War and the rise of ISIS in the Middle East.

He joined the armed forces to find structure and experience. He didn't spend much time thinking about the political ramifications of his choice.

One of the hardest parts of coming home was having conversations with friends and family about his service and the armed forces in general.

Some tried to debate him about the political side of the military. It felt like they were being aggressive, and not sensitive to his needs to decompress and not necessarily talk about his service. 

"The last thing I want is a heated discussion with someone who didn't go through it themselves.  Save those opinions for a congressional representative, or at the very least, remain calm," said Grzybowski, who considers himself mostly liberal.

"I would ask my loved ones, no matter your opinion, (to) be the loving support system your service member needs. Coming home was not at all what I imagined." 

The armed forces have become a political talking point as the U.S. tries to untangle itself from its conflicts overseas. Cries from both sides of the political aisle to draw down have grown louder and louder.

But for the 1.3 million service members on active duty, the military is more than just a headline or cause for a heated debate. It's a job and a way of life that can cause significant pain, hardship and lack of choice for members and their families. 

Rewire spoke to service members, health professionals and advocates on how to support someone in the armed forces even if you don't support the military as a whole.

Friendship and family are more important than ideological differences 

For Grzybowski, coming home was overwhelming. He was used to being stuck on a ship for days on end with rigid structure. With increased freedom at home, he became overwhelmed and stuck, with no direction forward.

He urges civilians to recognize that even if service members seem OK on the surface, it may take some time to get back to a place of being happy and productive. 

"I went from seeing my best friends on the ship every day to being and feeling alone and disconnected, trying to process how the past six years of my life all of a sudden felt like some sort of whimsical dream," Grzybowski said. 

"It's been hard feeling so isolated and like I can't relate to anyone, and it's taken me almost all of the two years I've been out to finally start to feel somewhat normal again."

Close friendships and community support are vital for service members when they return home, said Steven Allen, coordinator of the PTSD Clinical Team at Salt Lake City Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

people protesting war. rewire pbs love support military
Blaming a veteran for their service is focusing attention in the wrong place, as most choices, especially politically sensitive ones, come from way high up in the ranks.  |  Credit: ivector // Adobe

Allen said it's OK for friends and family to not support a service member's choices, but that doesn't mean they deserve to be treated poorly or with aggression. Asking the right questions can help spark a dialogue and could help a veteran process what they did and saw on deployment. 

"I think providing real support by trying to understand their experiences is really useful," Allen said. 

Allen often hears about family or friends not being sensitive to a service member's experience. The public sometimes assumes veterans saw combat, which Allen says reinforces stereotypes and isn't sensitive to a veteran's reality. 

"Oftentimes people are asked, 'Well, did you kill anyone?'" Allen said.

"That's not a good question. That's an aggressive question. Asking a service member, 'How was your deployment? What did you do?' gives the service member a chance to set their own pace to talk about what they've experienced."

When you join the military, some choices vanish 

Understanding who makes the decisions in the military is important, as service members typically don't have much of a choice in their deployment or what happens after they sign up.

Allen said disobeying orders in the military is often illegal, and service members are just doing what they're told to do.

Getting political with a veteran or blaming them for their service is focusing attention in the wrong place, as most choices, especially politically sensitive ones, come from way high up in the ranks, he said.

"The strength of the service is following orders," Allen said. "It's largely apolitical in the sense that service members do what they're told to do and follow the guidance of their leaders. They're not a political force. They're following their leadership."

One could argue service isn't completely without politics. After all, 57 percent of the 1,300 veterans surveyed in a 2019 national poll approved of President Donald Trump.

However, advocates for veterans say the issue is more nuanced. Sometimes military service is a necessity to escape poverty. 

With college debt soaring and economic disparities widening, more vulnerable populations are joining the service in hopes of advancing their education or increasing their earning potential, said Carroll Nast, the Auburn, California contact for Veterans for Peace.

"We no longer have the military draft.  However, we have an 'economic draft,'" Nast said.

"With unemployment and high cost of college affecting minorities the most, we see a higher proportion of military coming from poor and minorities." 

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, women and minorities are still largely underrepresented in high leadership positions in the military. Some say this issue has led to cultural issues and a lack of protection.

In 2018, 24 percent of women in the military and 6.3 percent of men experienced sexual harassment, and 28 percent of women and 3 percent of men experienced unwanted sexual contact.

Veterans return with wounds we can't see

Though most veterans don't see combat, they still return home with wounds we can't see. Professionals and service members alike say a gentle approach, with a focus on what the service member may need rather than aggression, is best. 

Asking the right questions can help save a life. Suicide is still a major issue among veterans.

Data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs indicates that on average, 20 veterans die by suicide each day.

"On deployment service members have been dealing with life and death issues," Allen said.

"Being sensitive to depression and if people are struggling, to be able to ask them if they're having thoughts of ending their life, can make a difference and save someone."

Jason Seegmiller is the program manager for the transition and care management program at the Salt Lake City Veterans Affairs Medical Center. He served 18 years in the Army National Guard, and was deployed in Kosovo as an intelligence officer. 

After years of working with veterans with PTSD, he says the biggest support people can give is to look beyond the uniform at the human being.

"The support isn't for the mission the service members are deploying for," Seegmiller said.

"The support is for the service member as a person. It makes a difference when people acknowledge that it's not easy to deploy, and acknowledge that these people need help when they return, is huge."

Even if you disagree, Seegmiller says we're all on this earth together trying to find our way. 

"Members of the community may disagree with some of the reasons we're deploying our troops but acknowledge the humanity of these service members," Seegmiller said.

"They can acknowledge the lack of choice they had in the matter, once they joined the military."

Taylor Hartman
Taylor Hartman is a writer from Salt Lake City. He works at KUED, Utah’s PBS station. He loves the outdoors and discovering and writing new stories.
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