How to manage tough questions about your service

Chances are, you’ve been asked all kinds of questions about your military service, especially if you’ve been deployed. While it might feel good when someone shows interest in your experience, it’s not always easy to know what to say.

Some questions are pretty easy to answer, such as, “what did you eat?” or “what kind of bugs were there?” Other questions, such as, “what was it like?” and “how does it feel to be back?” can be harder to answer. Then there are those really tough questions that you either can’t (due to operational security) or don’t want to answer.

Some of the difficult questions Military Service Members are often asked include: “Have you ever killed anyone?” “Have you ever seen someone get killed?” “Were you injured?” and “Were you ever scared?”

How to handle tough questions

Many Military Service Members avoid sharing details about their military or deployment experiences that are confidential, personal, or too difficult to share. It’s normal to have mixed feelings when asked sensitive questions: On one hand, you might not be ready to talk about topics that are difficult or traumatic. On the other hand, sharing your experiences with someone you’re close to might make you feel better. It’s also common to fear judgment or wonder how someone might react to an honest answer. After all, once you share, you can never be sure who else that person might tell.

Here are a few strategies to help you decide whether—or how—to answer sensitive questions about your military service:

  • Think ahead. While many friends and family members might already know not to ask certain “taboo” questions, not everyone you encounter will. Take some time before your return from deployment or before going into certain situations with people you haven’t seen in a while to think about which topics you’d like to avoid and which are okay to discuss. That way, you won’t be caught off guard or accidentally share something you might regret later.
  • Assess the relationship. Is the person asking the question someone you know well or you’re connected with in a meaningful way? Have you shared things with them in the past and had a positive experience? You’ll probably feel differently about responding to a parent, spouse, or fellow Military Service Member compared to an acquaintance or a friend from school. In some cases, you might feel like you want to protect those closer to you and share less. Or you might feel comfortable to share more. Think about what feels right for you.
  • Weigh the pros and cons. Think about whether there’s a benefit (or risk) to sharing. Although opening up about difficult experiences can make you feel vulnerable, doing so often brings people closer together. Think about whether you’d like to become closer with the person you’re talking to. In relationships that are already close, you might benefit from sharing your experience if it helps build understanding. For example, your spouse or partner might better understand your mood changes, anger, or sadness by knowing more about a trauma you experienced.
  • Consider the context. The way a question is asked can make a big difference in how you feel about responding. You might have a much different reaction when you get the sense someone is concerned about how you’re doing or what you’ve been through compared to when they’re just trying to get “juicy” details or privileged information from you. Take in as much information as you can, listen for warmth and authenticity, and read nonverbal cues to get a sense of what might be motivating the person asking.
  • Share “just enough.” Remember, you don’t have to share or disclose anything you don’t want to. If you decide you’re not in a place to get into a serious conversation, try sharing just a little information and omitting details. This can help you avoid being evasive or having to lie, while also communicating your boundaries. You can even practice respectfully, but firmly, deflecting when necessary. For example, you might simply say something like, “I appreciate your curiosity. There are some things about my deployment I’m still processing that I’m just not ready to talk about yet.”
Resources

Cox, J. A., and Albright, D. L. (2016). Can you keep a secret? Examining military couples’ disclosure through the lens of communication privacy management theory. Journal of Military and Government Counseling, 4(1), 12–21.

Hoyt, T., Pasupathi, M., Smith, B. W., Yeater, E. A., Kay, V. S., & Tooley, E. (2010). Disclosure of emotional events in groups at risk for posttraumatic stress disorder. International Journal of Stress Management, 17(1), 78–95. doi:10.1037/a0017453

Knobloch, L. K., & Carpenter-Theune, K. E. (2016). Topic avoidance in developing romantic relationships. Communication Research, 31(2), 173–205. doi:10.1177/0093650203261516

Petronio, S. (2010). Communication privacy management theory: What do we know about family privacy regulation? Journal of Family Theory & Review, 2(3), 175–196. doi:10.1111/j.1756-2589.2010.00052.x

Wilbur, D. S. (2018). Have you shot anyone? How combat veterans manage privacy with family and friends. Psychology of Language and Communication, 22(1), 71–89. doi:10.2478/plc-2018-0004