Advice from a disabled veteran's wife and caregiver
Have you ever said “Thank you for your service” to a veteran, then watched them squirm, awkwardly looking for something to say next? And perhaps you didn’t really know what to do or say either? That happens to my husband, a disabled Iraq war veteran, every time someone says those five words.
He understands people want to show gratitude for his service, especially if they haven’t served in the military, but it seems they're wanting to do something for veterans but don’t know how beyond say “thank you.”
When people seemy artwork about my experience as a veteran wife and caregiver, like my Instagram project where caregivers across the country are sharing what life is like after war and after the welcome home party, they often wish there was something they could do to help veterans and their families. Multiple people have told me they want to volunteer to help in some way but don’t know where to start. I totally get that! And I have a few ideas to share if you’re ready to do more than say “thank you.”
It starts with a follow up question
Expressing gratitude is wonderful, but saying “thank you” starts and stops there. Take it a step further by asking a follow up question. Since you will have the most impact in your own community I suggest you start with people you know.
Think of all the servicemembers and military family members you know personally. Make a list. Then, one at a time (if there are more than one) after you thank them for their service, ask: Can I help you or your family in any way?
If that feels too weird you could tell them you learned about this veteran wife artist who makes art about the challenges of life after war and it made you want to do more for our servicemembers. You might be the first person who asked if they were OK and if you could do anything for them. This follow up question offering support and acknowledgment of struggle could be life-changing.
If they say, “No, I’m fine,” (which may or may not be true) you could ask if they know anyone who might need help. If you still get nothing, ask if they have a favorite nonprofit who helped them or someone they know and could use volunteers.
If they don’t have any ideas, think of people you know who are involved in the military community in some capacity. Do you have friends or family who volunteer for a local organization? Ask them if you can help or what they need.
Beware: intention is not the same as impact
Please, please, please don’t tell any military family member or organization how you are going to help them. I have nonprofit experience on the staff side, volunteer side and the side of the person being helped so I can tell you from firsthand experience: handling volunteers who have good intentions but lots of ideas from their own agendas is the worst. The best volunteers are the ones who say, here’s my area of expertise and the things I’m good at – how can I help?
If you don’t know anyone involved with the military community, start thinking about your interests. Think about the skills you enjoy using (riding motorcycles? editing resumes? gardening?) and look for groups who could benefit from those skills. There are veteran groups for all sorts of interests and activities. Once you find one, approach them and ask if they need any help (but first, reread the paragraph above).
Organizations that made a difference in my life
Lastly, if all of the above is still too overwhelming and you want me to tell you where to start, I can at least share with you the organizations which have impacted me and my family the most: REBOOT Combat Recovery, Hope For the Warriors, Blue Star Families.
It may sound silly to say, but remember military families are human, too
Though our struggles may be different, we are all human. We want similar things: to be heard, asked if we’re OK and to feel normal. “Thank you for your service” is a start, but it’s not enough. Our veterans are still dying of suicide at an alarming rate, and the suicide rate of family members is not even counted (although it's a very real epidemic as well).
If you feel moved to do more than say thank you, I encourage you to go for it. Never underestimate the power of your help. Military families need people like you to be part of their local community. It takes a village to raise a soldier and send them off to war and to help them come home again.
And besides, once you’re a part of the family, we’ll take care of you for life.
Because in our family, we leave no one behind.
Sarah Dale is an artist, filmmaker, actor and advocate for military families and veteran caregivers like herself. Sarah specializes in using her creative skills to continue her journey of healing from secondary post-traumatic stress and help other military families find healing as well through projects such as: When War Comes Home, Flowers From the VA and more. Her advocacy work has led to her collaboration with organizations such as Hope for the Warriors, Blue Star Families and REBOOT Combat Recovery. When not making art and films, Sarah is an actor and entrepreneur.
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Sarah Dale is an artist, filmmaker and advocate for military families and veteran caregivers like herself. Sarah specializes in using her creative skills to continue her journey of healing from secondary post-traumatic stress and help other military families find healing as well through projects [...]