Slate Magazine’s Dear Prudie got one right this week, with a letter from a woman who’s husband is a U.S. military veteran, who recently lost his leg “due to a medical condition that was unrelated to his time in the military”. According to the letter writer, her husband has adjusted well to his recent amputation, however, it is the passers-by who seem to not be able to just let it go. She writes:
[O]ften strangers will pause to talk to him while we are in public, and these well-meaning individuals will ask whether he is a veteran. When my husband answers yes, it is inevitably assumed that he was injured in Iraq, and he is often thanked for his sacrifice for our country. One elderly gentleman hugged him with tears in his eyes! While my husband is a veteran and technically qualifies for the warm gesture, it seems deceitful to allow these people to believe he suffered a grave injury in Iraq. We don’t want to share my husband’s complicated medical history with strangers, but we don’t want to discourage people from giving thanks to vets in the future. What should we do?
Prudie’s response is pretty solid, in my opinion here. People with disabilities face nosy questions all the time. Everyone from children who can’t help but be unabashedly honest to grown-ups of the well-intentioned and otherwise variety. People with visible disabilities are constantly questioned about the whats, the hows and the whys of their conditions, as if they are under some obligation to share private pieces of their personal medical information. PWDs with invisible conditions are scrutinized by even their close friends when their health varies from day to day.
Veterans also face a barrage of these questions even when they are able-bodied, from people wanting to know about their service, where they’ve been, even if they have killed someone (hint: you should NEVER ask a veteran this question). Sometimes this line of questioning ends in tears and hugs and thank yous because people are grateful and some even want to share common experiences. Sometimes this creates tense situations. One place where I was stationed in California this actually resulted in people throwing their drinks on sailors and calling us “baby killers”, resulting in a lockdown on how and when we were allowed to leave the base or our houses.
The place where this intersects creates a wholly unique situation. Like Prudie says, people see a person of about the right age with a disability and presume that this person must be a combat-wounded veteran. Cue the questions and thank-yous, and demands for, once again, medical information that is none of their business. All based on presumption.
I agree with Prudie here. “Didn’t” and her husband are under no obligation to correct these people, no matter how well intentioned they may be in their demands for information or genuine their appreciation of his service. It is an invasion of his privacy, of their privacy, and it should be enough to appreciate the sacrifice that they made as a family (however much of that time was spent together) and he himself for his time spent in service, because it is a sacrifice of time and life. If these strangers want to assume that his loss of leg is related, then that is on them, but there is no litmus test of injury or illness that is required in order for your service to be appreciated.
Being patient and understanding that some of these people mean well is one thing, and it reflects well on Didn’t and her husband if they are willing to do so, and thank them for their gratitude. But when it goes beyond a thanks and violates their comfort levels they should feel no guilt over drawing a line and letting them know that they would rather not discuss it.