Evan Chartier, 26, is an experiential educator who brings an intersectional lens to his work on leadership, social justice and sexuality. He recently graduated from Colgate University with majors in sociology/anthropology and women’s studies. To continue the conversation, please reach out by email or on Twitter.
I am an anti-oppression activist and feminist who recently entered (and then quickly exited) the dating scene in Boston. I am also a veteran who served in an Israeli combat infantry unit from 2007 to 2009. A short yet significant period of my life unfortunately—and unpredictably—had a profound impact on my reentry into urban single-dom. Inspired by Mimi’s July post about “What to Say (or Not Say) Post-Breakup,” I would like to offer four things to say (or not say) when on a date with a veteran.
Instead of: “Was the military awesome/terrible/amazing/life changing?”
Try: “How was your experience in the military?”
As a social justice-oriented feminist and veteran, I have attracted a wide variety of politically inclined dating partners. The political perspective of any particular romantic interest has been demonstrated most often by how they ask this type of question. For example, if they ask, “Was serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) amazing/awesome/the best thing you have ever done?” we probably could have met at my Jewish summer camp, on the Birthright trip I led last summer or on Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda Street during a post-high school gap year in Israel. We might enjoy a round or two of Jewish geography, or discuss hazy memories of the shuk, Tel Aviv’s beaches and Mike’s Place. If they ask something like, “What about the Palestinians?” or “How could you support the Israeli government?” we might enjoy applying Patricia Hill Collins’ intersectional framework to American foreign policy or, for the more locally knowledgeable, to Bibi’s latest political disaster.
Ultimately, my military experiences, and those of the many veterans I have spoken with, parallel life’s other influential periods. They are simultaneously life changing, awesome, terrible and powerful. We laugh, cry and struggle to come out a better version of ourselves. I had some of my best and worst days in the military, and attaching a specific emotion or perspective to your question is more indicative of your own political leanings than it is of my experience. If you want to learn more about a veteran, or anyone, really, please stick to open-ended and non-judgmental questions.
Instead of making my military service the primary topic of conversation…
Try: “How has your military experience informed the rest of your life?”
My relationships, values and sense of self were all significantly shaped by my experiences in the military. I appreciate when a potential romantic interest asks about my military service, and I generally try to explain how it informed my journey through college, or how being a veteran relates to my other identities. The conversation typically proceeds in one of three ways: Either the other person (1) changes the topic, (2) asks respectful and thought-provoking questions about my experiences, or (3) spends the next hour asking questions that relate only to 2007-2009. I always appreciate the first two responses, and I am happy to answer questions about my service when asked respectfully and from genuine, compassionate interest. However, focusing only on questions about the military demonstrates a limited interest in my life and ignores the more complex, nuanced and interesting ways that military experiences shape personal growth and development.
Instead of: “Did you kill anyone?”
Try: “What was your role in the military?” or “What did you do on a daily basis?”
This is my No. 1 most frequently asked question. I know it is tempting to ask veterans whether they killed someone, especially if you know they were assigned to a combat unit. Just don’t. This is an insensitive question that invalidates their varied and complicated combat experiences, and may trigger flashbacks, severe anxiety or even panic attacks in some individuals. (See the book “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society” and the National Center for PTSD for more information.) Asking about killing is not a date-appropriate question (although many of Boston’s actively dating singles ask anyway). Killing should only be discussed if the veteran broaches the subject first (they probably won’t). Combat is not straightforward like what you see in a video game or movie, and veterans may be trying to process their own experiences even decades after being discharged. If you are interested in their experiences, find a respectful way to ask what their specific duties entailed.
Instead of: “Does it bother you that I think it’s hot?”
Try: “How do you approach dating people who find the military attractive?” or “Can we talk about how your actual service relates to the image I have of veterans?”
I will never “yuck” anyone’s “yum.” If you find uniforms, combat, veteran status or certain gender expressions to be attractive, I wholeheartedly support you and your sexual desires. If seeing a uniformed soldier turns you on, that’s awesome and that’s exactly what role-play scenarios are designed to satisfy. However, this question non-consensually fetishizes military experiences and often reflects more on my date’s idea(s) of soldier-hood than it does my reality. There is nothing wrong per se with fetishizing an identity, as long as it is consensual and respects the autonomy of all parties. But when I’ve been on dates with people who find my military service attractive, they have constructed a persona as the object of their attraction that is radically different from the person I actually am. I am instantly expected to be a masculine sexual aggressor. Radical, anti-oppressive and feminist political perspectives on sexuality are not exactly the words associated with “combat,” “soldier” or “army.”
Disclaimer: The examples above represent my personal opinions on how to most respectfully approach a date with a veteran. There are currently 20 million veterans living in the United States, not counting veterans of foreign militaries, which means it is likely that any one of us will date, befriend or otherwise encounter a veteran. Veterans have vastly different experiences and may have opinions that directly contradict my own. These examples are taken directly from my dating experience in Boston this fall. Although I speak for myself and from my own privileged experiences as a white, Jewish, able-bodied, American-born cis man in the Boston dating scene, I hope this post proves useful for those who find themselves dating, befriending or otherwise encountering a veteran.