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I know an elderly guy through a volunteering program that helps charities. He seems rather kind but I don’t talk to him often.

I know when he was younger, he served on the American forces and helped fight the Second World War. Though, he doesn’t really bring it up much beyond that.

Given some of the mental disorders (PTSD) many soldiers acquired, I’m very cautious about asking him what happened. Even if he didn’t have any of these issues, it can be quite a touchy subject given the severity of war in general.

I’ve seen how some retired soldiers are more than happy to talk about their experiences and how it makes them feel important and special. That’s my main motivation for asking aside my curiosity.

How can I ask him about his experience in service without coming across as insensitive or triggering back memories he may not wish to revisit?

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  • Hi Anilla. Why do want to talk to him about his war experience, when you can still talk about all his other decades of life?
    – Santiago
    Mar 14 '19 at 13:48
  • Have you ever witnessed him talking about it to someone else? Mar 14 '19 at 14:20
  • @XtremeBaumer I have not.
    – Anilla
    Mar 14 '19 at 14:30
  • How did you come to know about the fact that he fighted during WWII? Also, do you know his general feeling about this war and the part he played in it? Do you know if it could be ashamed of some of the things he had to do during that time? Does he think the war (and his involvement in it) was necessary and for a greater good?
    – Ael
    Mar 14 '19 at 14:38
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    I don't think it warrants a full answer, but the one question I've never liked as a veteran is "have you killed anyone?" In my experience, it's almost always asked to mean either "were you just 'in the military' or are you a real soldier?" or "are you dangerous?" Mar 14 '19 at 21:00
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It can be quite tricky to know whether it is okay to ask about a topic like this. On the one hand, I have met several war veterans who like to talk about their experiences because they like to reminisce about their younger days or as a warning to younger generations. On the other hand, I've also met war veterans who don't want to talk about their experiences because of the trauma or because they are ashamed to have been part of such violence. When I encounter a situation like this, where I want to ask about something specific, but don't know if it okay to do so, I like to ask questions tangential to the topic.

Asking a question that is tangential to the topic allows you to open the door for them to talk about it, without directly bringing it up. If the other person is not willing to talk about the subject, they have the option to avoid it and there is no awkward encounter of them declining to answer your question. If they are willing to talk about the subject, you've given them an avenue to do so. I've been using this method for several years to bring up subjects that I wasn't sure it was okay to talk about. One particular example is a date that I went on a few years ago. It was going well and I was interested in seeing if the night would lead to sex. I didn't want to just straight up ask if she wanted the same thing, because I didn't want to make things awkward and ruin the date if she wasn't interested. I don't remember exactly what I asked her, but it was something akin to asking what she wanted to do after dinner. At that point she was able to suggest that we go back to my place and, after a few more well placed questions, she ultimately initiated the sex. I've been in similar situations as well, where the person I was with instead suggested going for a walk, going to get dessert, etc... and it wasn't awkward.

How you should approach this

When I was in high school, I did a lot of volunteer work with elderly residents in a nursing home. What I found was that they liked having someone to talk to, and they would talk freely about anything they felt like talking about. There are some good related questions you can ask to open the door for the man you've met to talk about being in the war. I recommend that you focus on topics related to when he was young. Ask about what he did as a young man, who his friends were, etc... As he answers these questions, you should get even more information that you can use to ask more specific questions to steer the conversation towards the war, but don't actually go directly there. Wait for him to bring it up, and when he does you can start asking about it.

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I talk with a lot of people about a lot of different things. Because I'm an active listener, sometimes I get pretty deep into it with people.

One of the ways I ask somebody about a sensitive subject is to tell them a short story about someone I know who has had an experience that I'm interested in. People are in the social habit of swapping stories.

So in your case, I might say, "I know this guy who has complicated feelings about nuclear weapons. In World War II, he was in the infantry and he was going to be in the first wave of the invasion of Japan but the atomic bomb on Hiroshima ended the war and basically saved his life. Man, I don't know how I'd feel in a situation like that."

If he wants to talk about his experiences, he'll tell his own story and I can ask questions to keep him talking. If he's vague or changes the subject then he doesn't want to talk about it. His perogative.

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