Thirteen Tips for Interviewing Veterans

Ochberg Fellow Kelly Kennedy runs through things to remember when covering returning service members.

  1. Set aside a significant amount of time for the interview.
  2. If you can, let the service member tell it completely. Stories heal, and though it is not our job as journalists to be counselors, we know that reacting badly to a story can hurt. Try not to interrupt, other than to ask clarification questions (and those are fine – people like to know that you want to make sure you understand the story).
  3. Prepare yourself. If you give people a chance to talk to a neutral audience, they often will tell you the harsh details expecting you to be able to handle it. Listen. Don’t say, “I can’t listen to this.” If you can’t, you need to let someone else do the story. (Which is fine – you have to understand what is too much for you, too.)
  4. I usually record these interviews. I have a notebook, because looking down and writing allows someone to think about a question, or recover from an emotion, or to remember that you’re a reporter. But recording it allows me to be really engaged and actively listening when I need to. It also offers reassurance that you’re going to get it right.
  5. These guys get shut down a lot. If you deploy and see something bad, you will be shut down, too, even as a journalist. It’s a glazed-over look from a listener, or a but-you’re-home-now-just-move-on comfort or a blunt statement: I don’t want to hear this. On one level, that’s fine. People need to know what they can listen to. But on a bigger level, as a nation, we voted for these wars, and we allow them to continue. Somebody has to listen to these stories, and someone has to make sure the rest of the country hears them. If you’ve decided you can do that, do not shut them down.
  6. I usually start out with the same questions you would ask anyone: What was your job? Why did you join? Depending on the story, I can usually say, “Can you tell me what happened?” as a starter. There are questions that rile people up, and rightfully so. Don’t start off with, “So did you have to kill anyone?” And they totally make fun of the media for this question: “So how did that make you feel?” If I’m working with someone with PTSD and I’m trying to find out why, I might ask, “Are there days or events that stick out for you?” We do need to ask searching questions, but part of PTSD is feeling like you’ve lost a sense of control. Let them have some control. If you find they are leaving out the important parts, you’ll have to ask, but let them lead up to it. And if they tell you they lost a buddy, do like you would for any crime, family, school or political story: “Can you tell me about your friend?”
  7. Do not ever, ever say, “I know how you feel.” Just like any other trauma, you just can’t. Say: “I can’t imagine.” “That must have been terrifying.” “You must miss him.” “I’ve never been in that situation. Can you tell me what it looked like, what people around you were doing?” “What did you and your friends do to take care of each other?” That will get you much farther than “How did that make you feel?”
  8. If you don’t know what an acronym stands for or what the hell a “Fobbit” is, ask. Don’t play like you know what they’re talking about – they’ll catch you in it, and they won’t trust you. Remember, they just want you to understand the story.
  9. Often, these guys are dealing with short-term memory loss, either because of PTSD or because of head injuries. (A traumatic brain injury causes psychiatric symptoms, and it basically means they’ve suffered a concussion.) If I know I’m interviewing a TBI guy, I call him shortly before our appointment and remind him. Best bet if something happens there is to laugh it off – it can be embarrassing for these guys, and the military operates on humor.
  10. And, because of memory loss, a lot of these guys have tricks to remember answers. So, if you ask a question, and the guy starts at the beginning of his story, keep in mind that he may have to dig back through the story to find the answer. So, just listen. You may end up with a better understanding of what happened, and, again, it can be embarrassing for a young person dealing with this issue. If you can normalize the experience, you’ll get a better interview.
  11. This is a tricky one: TBI often “removes the filter” – meaning the guy can’t always stop himself from saying things he shouldn’t say. In one case, a soldier I interviewed saw an overweight woman at a buffet and said, “Lady, step away from the buffet.” And then was horrified. But for you, it sometimes means they say things they’re not allowed to say for security reasons. Be aware of that, and fall back on your ethics training.
  12. There are often anger issues involved. That comes from frontal-lobe injuries, as well as PTSD. Part of it goes back to that sense of lost control. If you run into that right away, try to keep in mind that it’s usually not aimed at you. It’s just aimed outward. I’ve found that it quickly disappears as soon as someone realizes you’re willing to listen. It’s extremely important not to get defensive. If you do, you’ll quickly lose their trust.
  13. If it’s a young vet, try to remember who you were at that age and what you were doing. Ultimately, they’re the same: worried about dating, playing video games, trying to figure out who they’re going to be when they grow up.