Recently I met a gentleman on the Air Force Cycling Team during a statewide bicycle ride. I had a great time talking to him, and we covered a lot of topics, which was awesome during tough hills! Eventually he took off in a blur of blue spandex and quadriceps, and I realized that though I was curious, I never felt comfortable asking about his service as a member of the U.S. Military. And THEN I realized that I didn't know how to ask people about their service, or if you should, or if there are times when you should or you shouldn't!
It seems to me that this a pretty big and nuanced issue, but overall I just want to know when it's okay to say, "I'd love to learn more about your experience, if you care to talk about it." I care about our servicemen and women and the jobs they do (especially, if I'm honest, the ones that get to train dolphins to find bombs. Seriously). But on the flipside, of course there are hard parts (see: tours of Afghanistan and Iraq, disturbing memories for Vietnam vets, the difficulty of returning to civilian life, etc) and I don't want to hurt people with my curiosity.
I'm also aware that I'm a civilian, and that there are definitely things I can and can't ask.
So, can you provide me with some pointers on talking with former and current members of the U.S. Armed Forces about their service?
-Standard Operating Procedure
As you may or may not know, I grew up near Fort Knox, Kentucky. They don’t still keep the gold there though they do keep something there and the best guess I have ever heard is the bodies of the Roswell aliens. I am close to a lot of servicemen and servicewomen as a result (I’m even related to a couple!), so I am something of a civilian expert on this particular topic. You’ve come to the right place.
Since we don’t have a draft anymore and the American armed forces are the smallest they’ve been since before WWII, a lot of people don’t know anyone who is in the military at all and are pretty misinformed about how it works and what being in is like. Before I say anything else, I want to emphasize the diversity of experience and background in the military: they aren’t inherently heroes or villains, just people with a job that has a little more structure than yours. Some people will have entire careers without ever firing a weapon, some spend years in warzones with only brief interruptions. What I’m saying is you can’t know what they’ve seen or what their preferences will be just by knowing they served.
With this in mind, here are some good, safe questions you can start with: What branch of the military are you in? How long have you been in the Navy? What do you do for the Navy at Parris Island? Where have you been stationed previously? Have you ever done an overseas tour?
Those are some pretty basic things that are pretty much like asking someone what they do for a living and what places they’ve lived in the past. It’s neutral, and if they get upset at you for asking things that basic, they’re being needlessly difficult and you are not the problem. I have yet to meet anyone who is uncomfortable talking about things at that level. That said, some of them have jobs that are very secretive, so if the person with whom you are speaking is purposefully vague about their work, drop it. Most of them, though, have pretty normal jobs, like "being a dentist," or "doing HR stuff." I typically stay away from the word “deployment” because that is one that changes meaning and scope from branch to branch; "overseas tour" is more neutral and less risky.
If you’re reading an advice column on how to be mannerly, I probably do not need to tell you this, but it bears repeating: do not ask if they have killed someone. Do not ask if they have lost friends. Do not ask if they have been shot at. Do not ask about PTSD. This is incredibly sensitive, and you do not have the right to know, regardless of how curious you are or if you play a ton of Call of Duty. If you become close to a veteran, they may eventually want to talk to you about this aspect of their military experience, but that day may never come. I have friends who will talk freely about being “PTSDed out” and make cracks about how they’re afraid of garbage, dogs, kids, and traffic, and I have friends who have never, ever spoken about the things they have seen and done during times of war. Respect that. You do not understand and you do not want to understand.
The last piece of advice I have for you regarding meeting people who have served in the military is to not say, “thank you for your service.” A lot of people are taught to say this as children, and I think that while the sentiment has its heart in the right place, it’s actually a minefield. Some soldiers love this adulation (what I think of that is another topic; you can feel free to email me if you’re curious), but for many, they feel like they’re being thanked for committing acts of violence. Consider the very worst thing you have ever done, and then ask yourself if you would want to be thanked for that ceaselessly and by complete strangers.
At the end of the day, the military is a really important part of our structure as a nation, and we should all be grateful there are people who want to do those jobs. But we should also be grateful for the electricians who make city grids run, for teachers who help developmentally disabled kids learn to read, for doctors who take assignments on reservations to help underserved communities, and farmers who grow the things we just pick up without a second thought at the supermarket.
Yours in Heart and Mind,
I am wading through the emotionally complicated mush of helping my partner prepare for a year-long internship in a town 1,529 miles away from our home. I want to mark this exciting, terrifying occasion with a gift that will convey even a small amount of the hopeful anticipation, love and longing I feel when I think about this next step in my partner's career, but the ideas I've come up with thus far all seem trite. My partner is a sentimental soul, but he has a utilitarian philosophy when it comes to stuff, so I hesitate to saddle him with keepsakes. I have already begun to assemble postcard-writing supplies and recipes for our favorite meals, but I'd appreciate your advice on a more substantial gift.
Such Sweet Sorrow
Before I get to the advice-giving part of this, let me say this: you have three out of the three qualities that prime a long-distance for success. First, you have banked a substantial amount of time as a couple before being apart. Second, the separation is not open-ended. Third, you really like each other and are sure you want to make it work. Since you’re calling him your partner, you’re planning a going-away gift, and it’s just a year, congrats! You’re in the best position to make this work! I hope I get an email from you in a year telling me that you crazy kids are getting a puppy/fern/house/engagement ring.
Buying going away presents is such a weird thing. Buying presents is so much fun, but when the recipient is leaving you don’t get to see them enjoy your gift later, which is always a bummer. I love your idea of making him a little recipe journal of your favorite shared meals; that’s considerate, sweet, and will remind him of your shared home. If you’re close to the person to whom you are giving a gift like this and are so inclined, things of this nature (mix tapes, a map quilt, etc.) always go over big, even for the most utilitarian among us.
If you want to purchase something, I recommend getting someone something they will use often, is part of the culture of where you’re from, and is nicely made. That way, they’ll think of you daily/weekly/hourly, remember something positive about the place they have left, and have said object for a long time. For example, when my roommate decamped South Carolina for the Bronx, I got him a vintage oyster knife and had the handle engraved with his monogram. It was practical (can’t eat an oyster shell), topical (come R months, you can’t turn around without getting invited to an oyster roast in Charleston and the man loves oysters), and it was well-constructed (I bought an antique knife and fitted a new blade on it). It wasn’t too big to take to the tiny New York City apartment he, his girlfriend, and cats share, and it wasn’t too sentimental, but it was personal enough to say, “hey, guy! I’m going to miss having you around.” You might think about getting him a good messenger bag made by a local artisan—he will take it with him to the internship five days a week, it’s from your hometown, and it will be something he can point to in twenty years and tell your kids, “Mom got me that to take to Denver when we had to be apart and I’ve carried it every day since.” Free idea for you!
You know him better than I do, so your mileage with those two possibilities may vary. Think practical with a dash of sentimentality and you’ve got a winner for sure. Good luck, SSS! You can make it!
Yours from Coast to Coast,
I'm afraid and I need an adult.
I was happily planning on attending some upcoming weddings for my friends, when BAM! my co-worker also got engaged. Thus I have gotten a wild-eyed gaze into the crazy world of million party invitations and the look of a woman dealing with a million moving parts. It is terrifying. Now I know that wedding planning was hard the way dramatic leading men in cop shows know that evil exists. I have looked evil in its face, Fancy.
Here is my qualm: In the next 6 weeks I have 3 weddings and 2 bridal showers to attend. I work 3 jobs and go to school. I can't afford gifts and outfits and all of those little things that add up to make weddings so expensive. (I'm turning 27 in a few weeks and I asked my mom for a haircut and yoga pants for my birthday, because they are things I need.) I want to support my friends, and I want to be there and share in their happiness and support them and celebrate with them. Is there a fancy way to be a broke wedding guest?
Watching the work that my co-worker is putting into her wedding and hearing all the rules that she is following makes me think that my part as a guest at this wedding is to have behavior that reflects respect for all the work she put into planning her wedding, and I don't know how to do that.
Please accept this well-wishing in lieu of a ceramic egg platter,
Classically Fancy, Yet Unrefined.
P.S. My co-worker changed her wedding date from the day before my birthday to the afternoon I'll be getting back from the Denali Road Lottery. So I will have driven 3 hours away from one of the most glorious places on earth to witness her get married at a Baptist church on some Harleys on top of a choir human pyramid or something. Right now, my goal is to show up on time, vaguely clean, and without sticks in my hair.
Weddings, man. They’re joyous occasions, for sure, but they have this extra set of one-use-only etiquette rules that apply only for them and are a huge pain. There’s an enormous amount of pressure to do things correctly and decorously, and no one is really sure how to navigate these rules except wedding planners and people like Elizabeth Taylor who tie the knot scores of times. I’m a Southerner between the ages of 18-30, so I have gone to a wedding or shower once a month or more for quite some time, and have held the hand of many a girlfriend as she comes more and more undone. The struggle is so, so, so real.
You are correct in your assessment that the Wedding Industrial Complex makes even the coolest, lowest-key person into an absolute lunatic. You’d feel crazy, too, if your plan to have a backyard barbecue with an iPod and twenty friends ballooned into a seated, four-course dinner for 400 at a plantation house with a 20-piece brass band. Your mom is asserting that you are not really married if you don’t have foil-stamped custom cocktail napkins at the reception, and your sister-in-law to be is insisting that she be allowed to give a speech about how love is bullshit between the readings and your aunt keeps telling everyone that you shouldn’t even be allowed to have a white dress since you live in sin with that man anyway. It’s rough. It’s good of you to be patient with your buds right now, and I wish more people had your sense of respect that reflects the work (and joy!) that your friends’ weddings signify. Someone should send your parents a card! They did a good job with you.
Weddings are pricey for everyone involved, and people get that. Don’t worry about your clothes too much as long as you follow the dress code. I guarantee you, there is only one woman at this event whose outfit matters, and it isn’t you. Assuming you have a cocktail dress (or whatever is appropriate), you can wear the same thing with different accessories to all three nuptials. No one will notice, and you can save yourself buckets of money. If you do not, I recommend trying out a dress rental service like Rent the Runway or refer to the advice I gave someone in the past about attiring yourself appropriately and affordably.
As for the gift, you have two routes you can go. The first is to take a look at their registry and choose something inexpensive, like a set of four cloth napkins, or some picture frames. There’s no shame in this whatsoever, and it’s stuff you know they want. Brides and grooms, make sure to register for stuff like this, and be sure to register not only at really expensive places, but at more affordable places, too. Your friends want to give you a gift, but not all of them are investment bankers who can send a Vitamix without a second thought.
The other way you can go is something a little homier, but still very, very welcome. Get a basket, and fill it with nice snacks you know they love and a bottle of champagne you can afford. Wrap it up nicely and have it delivered to their suite on the night of their wedding (people forget to eat during weddings. It’s a thing), or to their home on the day they return from their honeymoon. Someone did this for my parents and my aunt and uncle for their respective weddings, and both my mom and aunt report that this was their favorite gift of all because they were ravenous and there was nothing to eat in the house at all. Enclose a note that says, “To Rob, Congratulations on getting the girl of your dreams!” or “Angela and Peter, may the best of your past be the worst of your future!” or whatever seems appropriate. To make this even more affordable, you could make things yourself—homemade brownies and some delicious trail mix go a long way. Unless your friends are total jerks, they will be really excited to have a present they can devour in their hour of need.
If your friends are your friends for real, they are thrilled you’re coming to the wedding and do not care about a toaster or if you have a professional manicure. Show up, dance with your buddies, mingle with the cute single guys, and compliment them on how happy they look. That’s what matters most. Enjoy your awesome bike trip, and have a fun time at all these parties you get to attend!
Yours in Wedded Bliss,