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  • Greg Cheney

How to Understand the Experiences of Combat Veterans

A therapist reflects on her last session with a combat veteran longing to develop a strong therapeutic alliance and help this veteran manage the pain, confusion, and chaos present in his life. His eyes of desperation seemed to plead for her help, yet unsure he would find it. His eyes are etched in her memory spawning question after question.

How can I relate to his experiences in combat when I have never even served in the military?

What can I do to connect with him in a way where he feels truly heard and understood?

How can I understand the extreme culture he experienced in his military unit?

What can I do to connect with a combat veteran with the mindset and capability of running towards someone shooting at him?

How do I understand his experience transitioning from this extreme lifestyle to everyday society?

What can I do to develop a strong therapeutic alliance with my clients who are combat veterans?

These are common questions I receive from therapists who long to reach and help our combat veterans, but feel their lack of understanding for the combat veteran’s world hinders their effectiveness. As therapists, we understand the therapeutic alliance is key to helping our clients move toward their goals. One aspect of developing that alliance is understanding their perspective and experiences.

If you find yourself desiring to take steps into understanding the experience of combat veterans perhaps stepping into their world through their writings may help. Consider the following poem from a combat veteran reflecting on his experience of entering the business world after getting out of the military.


A boy sits in the corner Surrounded by men In suit jackets and ties Immersed in a pool of white hair and tiny wrinkles around the eyes. His shirt is a bit too big His tie is a bit too small His hands are clasped together He sits still as the others discuss matters of “great importance.” Their voices carry age Years bent over the keyboard And years bent toward the dollar Like parched men clamoring for a mirage. But they are young, and the boy is old. The boy remembers wiping blood off his trousers. He remembers clearing a malfunction out of his rifle And firing it back at live men, only one year ago. He remembers pressing as hard as he could Trying to hold the life in a wounded man When the life threatened to pour out of him, Like a finger in the dam of all things that matter. He remembers these things as he sits quietly in the corner. “Get some coffee,” one says. “Alright.” The boy stands; He pours quietly, stirs quietly, and hands it off.

by Luke Ryan

What comes up for you as you read this poem?

How does it inform your understanding of a combat veteran’s transition to the civilian world?

What steps can you take to continue to inform yourself and understand the experiences of combat veterans?

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