The Military-Civilian Divide

January 10, 2020

Less than 0.5 percent of the US population serves in the military and around 7 percent of the US population has been in the military at any time.  Thus, for the rest of the population, any understanding of military culture is often based on impressions gleaned from movies, video games, and limited news coverage. Too often veterans are falsely stereotyped as aggressive ticking timebombs with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), other psychological disorders, and/or substance abuse problems.  Other false assumptions include the notion that all veterans have been in combat, that they all have access to Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care, and that most are homeless.

One truth about veterans is that they indeed have experienced a life unlike that of their civilian counterparts. They have emerged from a rigid, prescribed, demanding, and, at times dangerous, life-changing experience that few civilians will ever know.  Although their friends, neighbors and relatives may feel they are at a loss as to how to even begin a conversation with the veterans in their lives, in order to erase negative stereotypes, it is important that they engage in that conversation rather than avoid it. The chasm between veterans and their communities can impede reintegration of veterans into their communities as well as their ability to secure higher education, employment or adequate health care.

Military culture meets the traditional definition of a culture, because it has its own vocabulary, codes of behavior and dress, as well as rites of passage and rituals. Meyer and colleagues (2016) pointed out: “Immersion in military culture can be such an indelible experience that veterans will identify with it more than any other cultural influence even decades after leaving active duty service.”  This is not to minimize the other cultural influences or demographic subcultures within the military; however, veterans may emerge from their time in the military with a fundamentally altered worldview that may be a barrier to successful re-integration into their communities and civilian life. Consequently, as with any demographic group, research suggests that knowledge of military culture may be as important as are health treatment options or service delivery procedures in achieving successful outcomes, and that a lack of cultural competence may contribute to poor outcomes.

Therefore, it is important for non-military service providers to ask if a client or patient is a veteran, even if they assume that any specific issue they are addressing is not explicitly connected to being in the military.  Bridging the military-civilian divide is key to successfully addressing the needs of the veteran community. The material in this chapter is intended to provide the foundation for building that bridge.

Myths and Stereotypes about Veterans

  • All veterans are in crisis.
  • All veterans have post-traumatic stress disorder and/or substance use issues.
  • All veterans have served in combat.
  • All veterans have access to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) healthcare.
  • All veterans are homeless.
  • All veterans want to be thanked for their service.

How Do You Identify a Veteran?

While it is important to avoid stereotyping veterans, there are common identifiers such as the following that may help you avoid negative responses, and instead build rapport and establish a trusted relationship with veterans:

  • Tattoos are very common within the veteran population: Memorial tattoos among veterans and families, as well as “meat tag” tattoos (a tattooed copy of vital information to provide identification when all alternate means to an ID are unavailable).
  • Clothing, pins, or bumper stickers can identify the veteran’s branch and/or unit.
  • While more or less commonplace in certain parts of the US, veterans may use formal and polite speech during everyday interactions (they may address you as “ma’am” or “sir”).
  • Cursing can be a huge part of the vernacular within this community. It’s not meant to be directed at anyone or be disrespectful.
  • Our assumptions can inform how we treat and interact with veterans. Thus, starting and maintaining conversations with a veteran is dependent on an understanding of the veteran population. We may assume a veteran is older, only served during wartime, has a disability, and is a man. The reality is that veterans cross all demographic lines and are growing in diversity