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Nov. 11, 2015

Joe Grimm: Who is a Veteran?

Nov. 11, 2015

Joe Grimm is an instructor and visiting-editor-in residence in MSU’s School of Journalism in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences. He teaches the course, Bias Busters, where students research, write and edit a series of books exploring different cultures. The class’s latest book is “100 Questions and Answers About Veterans: A Guide for Civilians.”

This Veterans Day, ask yourself: Who is your veteran?

Is your veteran the hero who selflessly gave to serve others?

Or is your veteran the broken one, bearing physical and mental battle scars?

Or maybe your veteran is the one who saw the world and now enjoys a lifetime of medical, retirement and educational benefits.

People think they see all those veterans. And not one is the true picture.

In creating “100 Questions and Answers About Veterans: A Guide for Civilians,” students in a Michigan State University journalism class made a guide to bust stereotypes and encourage conversation.

As we interviewed civilians, we heard many stereotypes. Often, they ran in opposite directions. Veterans are brave. Veterans are scarred. Veterans are homeless. Veterans have it made. Veterans didn’t go to college. Veterans go to college for free.

There are as many misconceptions about veterans as there are for any other cultural group. And yes, this is a cultural group. Its members have a unique set of experiences and connections. These can include similar values, training, work assignments, vocabulary and habits.

The problem is that, for all their similarities, the nation’s 21.8 million veterans are as different as they can be. They come from every race and nationality, every state and city and every religion. About all you can say with any certainty is that all are adults and all experience some degree of misunderstanding.

One veteran who helped edit the guide said veterans don’t expect others to understand them. They like it if civilians listen, but they know it is hard to understand their experiences if you’re not a veteran yourself.

So, listen. Close your mouth, open your mind and let them take you where they want to. If there is something they don’t want to talk about, they can tell you. It’s not a problem. But listen. This is perhaps the greatest way you can pay them a tribute this Veterans Day.

These are a few things we learned this year compiling “100 Questions and Answers About Veterans.”

  • Veterans are politically diverse. While in the service, they work for the commander-in-chief, but on Election Day they vote their own minds.
  • While a disproportionate share of veterans are homeless, a disproportionate number also start businesses. 
  • We call them (by branch) Marines, soldiers, sailors, guardsmen and airmen. Yes, even the women. While we’re on the subject, the percentage of veterans who are women is about 10 percent today. It is projected to be 18 percent in 2040.
  • About two-thirds of veterans did not serve in combat, according to a 2010 report by the Veterans Administration. Don’t assume that airmen are pilots or sailors work on ships. They have a variety of assignments.
  • United by training and tradition, veterans in the workplace may put a greater emphasis on punctuality, teamwork and merit-based promotions.
  • Rushing up to veterans to thank them for their service, which 70 percent of civilians have done, is a well-intended gesture that can cause pain. Don’t presume to know what they did or how they feel about it.

This Veterans Day, treat the day as one of celebration and respect by deepening your relationship with a veteran.

(The veterans guide, which is now being used by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan in the launch of its veterans resource center, is the eighth in a cultural competence series. It includes guides about Hispanics and Latinos, Indian Americans and East Asian cultures. Guides about African Americans and American Jews will be out soon.)