By: Peter Sessum
Recently, I had an opportunity to speak with Medal of Honor recipient SSG Ty Carter. I thanked him for how outspoken he is about Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS). One thing he said is that we, as a society, need to drop the “D” from the description because by not calling it a disorder we change our perception of the pain of so many. There are many contributing factors to PTS and one contributing factors is civilians.
They have no impact on what happens overseas but have a large impact on a service member after they return to the states and are trying to readjust. It would be nice if civilians would realize the part they play in veteran PST. One of the main civilian offenses is asking the “million dollar question.” Asking it can trigger bad memories or diminish the service of the person.
The base million dollar question is “How many people have you killed?” There are variations that ask what it is like to kill someone, what is combat like or how many dead bodies has the vet seen but they are all the same at the core.
The million dollar question is not about the veteran it is about the person asking the question. They have some morbid curiosity that compels them to ask but truth be told, most couldn’t handle the answer. It is usually a young man that played too much Call of Duty that asks the question with a smile. He has watched Band of Brothers and Blackhawk Down and has romanticized combat in his head. He is hoping for some story about the heroics of war straight out of the video game. His buddies brag about headshots and sticky grenades and think combat is just like that. He never has any intention of triggering a negative reaction and often doesn’t realize how messed up of a question it is in real life.
For some veterans it would be like asking a victim of human trafficking if the sex was good? The question is asking the veteran to separate everything else from that deployment and take out the few seconds that surrounded a trigger pull. Instead a lot of negative memories can come flooding back in an instant.
The million dollar question assumes that taking a human life is a positive experience. For a deeper look into that a person should read On Killing. Only 2 percent of the population, the sociopaths, want to kill. Everyone else is not a fan of taking a life. In addition, not all losses in a combat zone are due to enemy action. Vehicle accidents, negligent discharges and friendly fire still claim lives and no one will brag about that when asked if they killed anyone.
Pat Tillman was a hero to everyone in uniform. He gave up a lucrative football contract to join the Army. He wanted to be the best and didn’t want any special treatment. Instead of going the officer route which would have been cushy for him, he became a Ranger. He was an E-4 when he deployed to Afghanistan and was killed due to friendly fire. There is no one involved in that situation that is going to want to talk about killing Tillman. To break it down Sesame Street for civilians that would be like Agent Coulson killing Captain America? Do you think he would want to brag about it? Every time someone asked him about the people he killed he would think to that moment and not the numerous nameless Hydra bad guys he took out.
Asking a vet how many people he has killed instantly tells them combat is the only measure you care about. Truth be told, amongst themselves most veterans don’t talk about that. Most will talk about the lives they saved or the times they didn’t pull the trigger. The only times a firefight is talked about is when the situation, not the body count, is relevant to whatever is being discussed at the time. I have never trusted a person that talks about the number of kills they have especially to a stranger. In my experience if they are too eager to discuss the lives they have taken they are trying to get attention and are usually either crazy or lying.
The person that has never fired a shot in anger will sometimes feel bad when asked the million dollar question. It makes it seem like his service was not the same as those that got into firefights. Deployments suck, everything about them sucks and everyone suffers. Some are lucky enough to have air conditioned offices and don’t break the gate but everyone is far from home dealing and with the heat so there is no reason to diminish their service or sacrifice by putting only one criteria for success. Especially when there are a number of hardcore jobs that may not encounter hostile fire. Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) or Air Force pararescue are two that come to mind.
Of course there is also the fact that the million dollar question is only asked of men. While women are still barred from combat jobs, women have been in combat for years. There are no more front lines and anyone is fair game in the firefight. By not acknowledging their service it diminishes what they went through but we will look into that more later.
The ultimate million dollar question, and people should be ashamed that this has to be stated, the worst question to ask a veteran is “Do you have PTSD?” There is nothing positive that will come from asking that question. The person asking it will be perceived as thinking all veterans are crazy. Because people are becoming so familiar with the term and it is so attached to veterans that people now seem to think that it is OK to talk to veterans about it. Asking someone about their mental health would be incredibly insensitive and that applies to veterans too.
In the end the million dollar question and the lack of understanding of its effect is one of the ways that civilians, often unwittingly, contribute to the PTS of military members and veterans. It can instantly trigger bad memories or feelings. It is also something intimate that is not discussed with strangers. Deployment is one part of the military experience that civilians do not understand. Some think that having a husband that travels for work is the same thing as having a spouse deployed. There are so many part of the deployment experience that are so far outside the civilian understanding that many vets don’t like to discuss it with anyone that hasn’t served.
Hopefully civilians will stop asking the question that they really don’t want the answer to and veterans can avoid the uncomfortable situation of having to tell someone why they won’t answer the million dollar question.