Iraq and Afghanistan are buzzwords to most Americans. They divide us along political lines - red or blue. These countries are either reminders of America's tragically flawed empire building, or symbols of our country's sacrifices in the name of freedom. Either way, civilians tend to be both isolated from - and curious about - the most costly military operations that have taken place over the last thirteen years.
Most people are both respectful and obliging when they work up the courage to ask someone about their service overseas. Common sense is really all that's required if you want to ask someone about their service. Chances are, the person will probably be flattered and tell you a funny story or two.
Problems arise when people start the conversation with their own prejudices. Here's a list of some of the dumbest ways that veterans get asked about the military. These are guaranteed to earn you nothing but an eye roll, if not worse.
1. How was boot camp?
This is probably the easiest one to answer: it sucks. The whole thing is designed to suck. There is no reason to delve any further into it than that, and it's not that hard to come up with a better question.
2. Isn't it so sad what happened with [Iraq/Afghanistan]?
Don't rush to judgment and assume that a veteran feels like these wars were worthless. While that is the most popular view among the media and many experts, some veterans had a very different experience in the specific area where they served. There were pockets of real progress in every counterinsurgency that we've fought, and no one really knows how these countries will turn out in twenty or thirty years. Remember Vietnam?
3. How do you sleep at night?
The answer should be something like "On a bed, probably like you do." If the question is meant more like an accusation about ethical conduct, then this person is obviously an anti-war nut job. They don't really care what the veteran has to say, so that conversation needs to end as quickly as possible. The other option is that the question refers to Post-Traumatic Stress, in which case that's way too personal to be asking a random person.
4. What is it like to kill someone?
Most vets have been asked this one, usually by a guy towards the end of the night at a dive bar. It seems to be the question that everyone wants to ask, and it's hard to take it seriously if you've actually served. Only a very small percentage of people in the military are ever in combat, and plenty of those who did aren't sure if they were the one who actually fired the shot that took out someone. Resist the temptation to ask.
If possible, remember the slogan "Veterans are people, too." Each person has their own experience before, during, and after the military. Try to get to know them first, then worry about the crazy stuff they did while serving.
Bonus tip: If you thought about joining the military but didn't, resist the urge to tell a veteran. No one cares about things that you almost did.