Staff Perspective: The Importance of Veterans Sharing Their Stories

Staff Perspective: The Importance of Veterans Sharing Their Stories

April Thompson, LCSW

The benefits of Veterans sharing their stories: A conversation with Lt. Col Mike Strobl and his wife Stacey about the movie “Taking Chance” If you’ve never seen the movie “Taking Chance”, you should. The movie was released by HBO in 2009 and is a film based on the experiences of Marine Lieutenant Colonel Michael Strobl who escorted the body of a fallen Marine, PFC Chance Phelps (posthumously promoted to LCPL) back to his hometown after being killed in the Iraq War. While some things have changed since the early part of the Iraq War, the movie’s message about the importance of each Veteran’s unique story is as relevant today as it was when it was released almost eight years ago. Like many of the best military movies, it exposes the audience to a story that might not otherwise be told and a perspective the civilian audience might not experience. I think there is tremendous value in Veterans sharing their stories – even when they don’t eventually get made into a movie.

What’s different for me about “Taking Chance” is that it is a real story about a friend of mine – a friend I met over 20 years ago when we were working on a Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia. Before I started writing this blog post, I had never asked Mike how his escort experience impacted him and his wife Stacey, so I wondered if talking to them would help me better understand the value of Veterans sharing their stories today.

Marine Lieutenant Colonel Michael Strobl Mike and Stacey StroblI began thinking about the issue of Veterans talking about their military experiences after watching a 2014 TED talk titled “How to talk to Veterans about war.” In this talk, Wes Moore (an Army Veteran) suggested that when he returned from an overseas combat tour, he wanted people to ask him about his experiences and ask how he was doing and what his transition back to the US was like for him. He said many people were hesitant to ask questions which led him to feel that his service wasn’t acknowledged and that people didn’t care. Even though it has become almost obligatory to say, “Thank you for your service”, he said that most people don’t ask about the Veteran’s story. He wanted people to ask him about his story and not pretend that it didn’t happen. He thought people’s discomfort with talking about his deployment experiences led them to thank him but not ask any questions.

I did wonder about the importance of Veterans sharing their stories. Is it to help civilians understand what Service members go through? Is it to help Veterans process what happened to them? Does asking Veterans about their service provide a way for others to show that they care? As I reflect on my professional work as a clinical social worker and my personal experiences as a military spouse talking with many friends and family members who have served, I am beginning to see that it is all of those things – and maybe more.

I recently heard about a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) program called “My Life My Story” that enables Veterans to share their stories with their VA care team who then incorporate it into the VA medical record. The intended effect of this program is that the stories and experiences shared are valued and honored by both the Veteran and those people he or she is sharing it with. As it becomes a part of the medical record, it provides everyone on the team with a more holistic picture of the Veteran rather than seeing him or her as simply a collection of symptoms. In reporting about the program, the Veterans also express gratitude being asked about their experiences and how meaningful it is to have someone listen to them and write down the stories they share. Some also reported finding it helpful as a way to share stories with family members who may not know much about their military service.

Anecdotally, it appears that there is value on many levels when a Veteran chooses to share his or her experiences with others. This brings me back to wondering about how sharing his story in the movie “Taking Chance” impacted my friend Mike and his wife. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with them and ask them.

Mike said he never intended for the written account of his experiences to be anything more than a personal recording. He said he wrote up his memories after escorting PFC Phelps as a way to remember and process what the experience was like for him. He said he felt very connected to PFC Phelps as a result of this journey and had been profoundly moved by the many people he met throughout the experience. When he returned home the first night, although he was exhausted, he wrote out his memories in one sitting – staying up until it as finished. After he finished writing it, though, he decided to share it with a few friends. Those friends shared it with a few other friends and soon the story was being spread exponentially.

I asked Mike why he thought the story captivated people so much and why there was interest in turning it into a movie. His response was that it was a story without a political agenda – a story about many people beyond simply Mike and PFC Phelps. It was a story about the important work being done by people at Dover Air Force Base attending to the remains of fallen Service members and the many ways that Americans all along his journey honored PFC Phelps. He also said that Americans hear about Service members being killed while on deployment and then see news reports about their funerals, but rarely do they think about what happens in between.

He said that for him, sharing his story meant processing his experience as an escort and bringing attention to the many ways America honors its fallen Service members.

I was reminded that less than one percent of Americans serve in the Armed Forces – therefore many people may not have a friend or family member who has served. Mike believes that it is important for all Americans to understand what we ask of our military. There needs to be a way, whether it be through books, movies, news reports or other media, to share and understand the experiences of our military.

Stacey spoke about the importance of taking steps to bridge the ever-expanding military-civilian divide. That divide can sometimes result in people having unhelpful, one-dimensional stereotypes about Service members and their families. She hopes that through the movie “Taking Chance,” as well as through people talking to Veterans, they will learn that our Service members and their families are patriotic, well-educated, hardworking people with diverse backgrounds, thoughts and experiences. She wants people to not paint the “military” with a broad brush, but learn what makes each individual unique and worthy of respect.

By sharing their stories, Veterans may help themselves process and understand their experiences and also help those around them get a glimpse into military service. At the Center for Deployment Psychology, we encourage behavioral health providers to ask their clients if they or one of their family members have ever served in the military. If they have, following that up with additional questions about their service, inviting them to share whatever information they feel comfortable discussing. We routinely provide trainings on military culture to help familiarize civilian providers with aspects of military life to help them feel more comfortable asking questions about military service.

I understand now, even more, that when Veterans choose to open up about their experiences, it is our job to listen and learn what we can. I am grateful to Mike and Stacey for taking time to explain the reason they shared their story. I hope that I was able to listen well.

The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.​

April Thompson, LCSW, is clinical social worker currently working as a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Trainer with the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP).