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Tips for police interaction with combat veterans

Please keep in mind that our combat veterans fought for our freedom, and we owe them a debt of gratitude, praise, and thanks

Since 9/11, some two million Americans have served our country overseas. Among those who served in a combat zone or unit, nearly 70 percent have experienced firefights and various types of combat on a regular basis.

These great patriots have experienced life altering events at very young ages. The trauma they experience can lead to invisible wounds such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

If you ever encounter a combat veteran on a call for service — whether it’s a on a traffic stop, a domestic call or even something more significant — please keep in mind that these great men and women fought for our freedom, and we owe them a debt of gratitude, praise, and thanks.

Encounters with Combat Veterans
I’ve read a number of articles practically villainizing the combat veteran. As a veteran and a law enforcement officer, I want to share what I believe to be a simple way to communicate with these men and women.

These combat veterans are much like cops. They often feel that outsiders don’t understand them, they are people of great honor and integrity, they like to be with their own kind and will die for their convictions. Sounds like the cliché of the police brotherhood when described by outsiders and reporters.

Law enforcement is blessed with experienced combat veterans from the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan within our profession. These men and women are tremendous assets with their combat experiences and positive leadership abilities, strong discipline, loyalty and ethics.

The majority of returning combat veterans share the same qualities no matter what their chosen field is and they hardly ever have encounters with law enforcement.

Most combat veterans — and I mean most — return from war and eventually return to their civilian lives (or military careers) with some sort of normalcy, productivity, and benefit to society.

However, if you haven’t spent time in a combat zone where every waking moment you’re concerned about being ambushed (even on your time off) or you’ve witnessed horrific loss of human life on a regular basis, you will never be able to fully understand what our warriors have experienced and what may be troubling them.

Some combat veterans have returned home to find themselves homeless, unemployed, and no social support or family to lean on. Furthermore, a number of combat veterans suffer PTSD and don’t receive the treatment they need to help them battle this invisible combat injury.

Again, most veterans — even if they do suffer from PTSD — fade into society without bringing any attention to themselves.

Injustice to our Combat Veterans
My frustration comes from some police trainers and officers taking an adversarial position with our combat veterans. This is an injustice to our combat veterans. The fact is that in many cases breaking the ice with a combat veteran you encounter on the streets, like you would a fellow officer, will increase your odds of success when trying to achieve their cooperation.

In many cases you must gain their trust before they will begin to listen to what you have to say. Once the trust is established they will often speak to you like your partner in a squad car.

The biggest mistake often made by officers — especially in the tactical community — is they fail to understand that if you place a combat veteran into a corner, leaving him no alternative way out of the encounter, he will choose to battle you.

That is what he knows.

His military combat training will always be a part of his cognitive thinking process and as we sometimes read in stories across the country, some police agency may have pushed a little too hard when dealing with a combat veteran and the outcome usually ends badly for the soldier.

Breaking the Ice with Combat Veterans
Some basic questions can help you begin dialogue on a street encounter. These types of questions come from crisis negotiators trained for these types of situations but you can use them on street encounters just the same.

Try and relate with them with the following questions but I caution you not to BS these individuals with bogus stories because they will be onto such BS in a second (and your hyperbolic efforts will be counterproductive).

Just keep the conversations simple, because in most cases these men just need somebody who can relate with them and for most cops you have that ability.

Some simple questions to break the ice between you and a combat veteran during a street encounter may include:

1.) How long were you in the military?

2.) Are you still on active duty?

3.) What was your military specialty?

4.) Were you ever deployed overseas?

5.) How many overseas deployments did you serve?

6.) What was it like for you?

7.) How long have you been back?

8.) What has it been like for you since you have been stateside?

9.) Are you still in contact with other veterans?

Once you get the veteran talking and answering some questions, then that’s your queue that he is starting to trust you. At this point as a professional law enforcement officer and grateful American citizen extend him the courtesy you would for a police officer and not a gang banger.

I’m not asking you to put him above the law — you must always do your job. However, if you encounter a combat veteran on a call for service remember what may have brought him to this point.

Resources for Combat Veterans
Many states have started military outreach programs and veteran courts that service combat veterans in a forum dedicated to providing them the proper help they need as opposed to jail. Know your local programs and veteran courts and use them.

Some of my favorite resources for returning combat veterans are:

After Deployment
Military One Source
Transition Assistance Program
Warrior Care
Wounded Warrior Project
Wounded Warrior Resource Center

We have discretion as police officers in many cases when dealing with criminals. I ask that officers exercise that discretion, when practical, for our combat veterans as a thank you for their service.

That’s the least we can do.

Glenn French, a retired Sergeant with the Sterling Heights (Mich.) Police Department, has 24 years police experience and served as the Team Commander for the Special Response Team, and supervisor of the Sterling Heights Police Department Training Bureau. He has 16 years SWAT experience and also served as a Sniper Team Leader, REACT Team Leader, and Explosive Breacher.

Contact Glenn French.