How to Talk with Veterans on Memorial Day

Arlington National Cemetery

A few years ago, I was a chaperone for my son’s Washington D.C. class trip. Fortunately for the students and me, Arlington Cemetery was on our itinerary. If you’ve never visited, know that it’s a powerful experience that reminds you of the truest sacrifices men and women have made for this great nation of ours. In other words, please go…you won’t regret it.

When we arrived at the cemetery, I knew I wanted to separate myself from the students so I could have a few private moments visiting some of my friends buried there.  

SSG James “Jimmy” Moriarty, an Army soldier and friend who was Killed in Action in 2016, was my first stop. As I walked towards the direction of his grave, I saw a young man nearby kneeling by another grave, drinking one of the beers from the six-pack he’d brought. As I got closer, I could hear his sobs. My heart was broken. This man was in a lot of pain. In that moment, I knew he couldn’t be alone.

I decided to approach him, calmly, respectfully. When he looked up to see me walking closer, he smiled, which is when I offered, “I’m coming over because I’m hoping you can tell me about the person you’re spending time with today.”

The man looked a little surprised but was receptive and honored to share stories about his brother, an Army Veteran, who died at such a young age in Iraq. He talked for 10-15 minutes, I listened. When he was done, we agreed that his brother wouldn’t want him to drink alone. We opened one of the beers and poured it near his grave. He thanked me, we hugged, and I continued on…tears, of course, rolling down my face.  

I think about this story today, on Memorial Day.  

On that day in Arlington, I felt completely comfortable approaching this gentleman and extending my love, attention, and support to him. As a Veteran, I speak “military” – I know what to ask and I know what to say. I have no doubt some of my friends who’ve never served in the military would’ve wanted to do what I’d done, but they would’ve hesitated to approach him, uncertain of what words to use.

I think we can all be braver with our conversations with our active duty and Veteran communitiesboth service members and their families. I know firsthand that many would appreciate having an honest conversation about service and sacrifice in an effort to build a bridge between the military and our nation’s citizens.

If you’re never served before, and would like to have a meaningful conversation with an active-duty service member or Veteran today on Memorial Day, here’s a list of safe questions you can ask that I know will be well received:

  • Why did you join the military? Which branch did you serve?
  • What was it like to go from a civilian to a service member? What do you remember most about your training?
  • What did you do while you were in service?
  • What did you like about the military?
  • What was the most challenging aspect of serving in the military?
  • Where were you stationed? Where were you deployed? Did you serve overseas?
  • Did you make a lot of friends while in service – do you still get together?
  • Did other family members serve in the military? Which branches?
  • Was it difficult to leave the military? What career did you transition into after service?
  • What lessons did you learn while in uniform that have served you well in your life?
  • Can you share with me stories of the people you honor on Memorial Day?

I know we all feel compelled to thank our Veterans. As Americans, we can go one step further – we can engage them, learn from them, and honor them and their brothers and sisters in ways that bring to life the true spirit of this reflective day.

Happy Memorial Day!

All my best,

Angie's signature
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