Managing Hollywood Perceptions of Veterans

Airman 1st Class Natasha Libby, a 66th Rescue Squadron aerial gunner, stands next to an HH-60 Pave Hawk June 20, 2013, at Nellis Air Force Base. (Senior Airman Daniel Hughes/U.S. Air Force photo)

With less than 1% of Americans having served in the military, most people you will meet are civilians who are not versed in the military culture, language or rituals. Most civilians do not understand what it took for you to commit your life and your livelihood to military service, do not know firsthand what boot camp or combat feels like, and have not lost a battle buddy in war.

Most civilians gain their understanding of military service from books and film. Television, movies and documentaries attempt to capture service stories and tell them in ways that will hold the viewer's attention long enough to make a point or sell advertising.

Sometimes, to accomplish this, the stories need to be embellished and sound effects be added to make the scene more compelling and memorable.

Research by the Bush Institute in 2015 showed that 84% of post-9/11 veterans say that the American public doesn't understand them, and 71% of Americans say that they don't understand the challenges post-9/11 veterans face. The issues of perception are real!

A retired Marine Corps staff sergeant shared with me that in one of his first civilian job interviews, he was asked whether he "jumped out of helicopters into the jungle and shot up the place," like Charlie Sheen did in the 1986 Vietnam War movie, "Platoon." (The interviewer asked this question with enthusiasm and excitement, shocking the sergeant.) As you transition from a military to a civilian career, keep in mind that, for many people, this is what they imagine when they hear you served in combat, you are a trained sniper or you were injured due to enemy gunfire or a roadside bomb.

Understanding the depth of awareness of your civilian counterparts is important. Soon, you will be interviewing and working alongside people who might have a different understanding of your service. When you are asked questions and are unsure how much detail to offer in response to combat- or service-related questions, here are some guidelines to remember (particularly in an interview or networking situation):

  • Begin Brief. Start by acknowledging where and when you served to see whether that information would quench your audience's curiosity.
  • Leave Out Anything Overly Graphic, Technical and Especially Confidential. What you became accustomed to seeing, smelling, hearing and feeling is foreign to the civilian and can create images too vivid for your audience.
  • Use a Transition Phrase (a "Bridge") to Send the Question Back to the Interviewer. You might say, "In combat, I learned how to think quickly, manage stress, respond to changing situations and motivate others. In this job, are those skills valuable to you?"

While the idea that a civilian doesn't understand your service career might be frustrating and even upsetting, remind yourself that what you committed to and participated in was truly a unique experience that few Americans can claim. You are one of the select few who have the honor of having served in the United States Armed Forces.

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