"SENSITIVITY TO ME IS THE BIGGEST THING" Paolino. [Photos by Richard McCaffrey]
“Did you kill anyone?”
“How many people did you kill?”
If you happen to strike up a conversation with a veteran or active member of the US military on Friday’s Armed Forces Recognition Day at the State House, Saturday’s “WaterFire Salute to Veterans” in Providence, or any of the other events taking place around the state on Veterans Day (Monday, November 11), we at the Phoenix officially advise you to avoid asking those questions.
This may sound obvious. But if you’re surprised that we have to remind you, you may be equally surprised at just how many service members tell us a) how often they’re asked those very questions, and b) how much it irks them.
Which brings us to another point. Aside from all of the other problems packed into those four little words — “Did you kill anyone?” — there’s an additional built-in assumption that the military is some kind of monolithic institution.
“People think of the military and a lot of times they think of your basic infantry guy,” says Rebecca Taylor, a US Army medevac helicopter pilot who works for a Warwick-based Department of Defense-contracted staffing agency. They think “Oh, you’re in the military and you shoot people,” she says, before she rings off just a few examples — military police officers, human resources experts, logistics and supply-chain specialists — that disprove the “infantry guy” stereotype.
In lieu of the “how many people did you kill?” question, she says, “I think it would be nice if people would go, ‘Well, what is it you do in the military?’ Give people a chance to explain in their own words.”
And, so in honor of the upcoming veterans-related observances in Rhode Island — and in acknowledgement of the communication gap between Rhode Island’s approximately 1500 active service members, 4400 reserve and National Guard members, 71,000 veterans, and the rest of us civilians — that’s exactly what we did. We sat down with a number of veterans and service members to simply ask: “What do you? And what do you want everyone else to know about it?”
What follows are edited and condensed excerpts from those conversations.
NAME | Anthony Paolino
AGE | 30
THE BASICS | Enlisted in 2003
• Air Force Aviation Specialist with numerous deployments to Germany, Kuwait, Qatar, Afghanistan, and elsewhere as an expert in fixing and maintaining electronics on C-130 cargo transport planes
• Currently employed as a Military & Veteran Coordinator at CCRI and serving as the Chairman/CEO of the nonprofit Rhode Island Military Organization
HIS WORDS | The military is one percent of the population in the United States. So, the other 99 percent? I believe they should be aware of the things that are going on.
Sensitivity, to me, is the biggest thing. If you’re in a classroom with someone that you know served in the military and they seem to be a little edgy, they seem to be a little off . . . it’s not about, “Well, you killed people, so now you have PTSD.” It’s about understanding that, if you’re in a classroom, if you’re in a bar, if you’re anywhere with people, population, you have to understand what’s going through that veteran’s mind. And that could just be simply that when you’re overseas, let’s say, in Iraq, you’re in the Army . . . and you’re constantly looking over your shoulder. Your guys are getting shot at, you’re digging holes, and you’re trying to stay safe just to save your life. Your adrenaline is constantly pumping every single second of every single day, not knowing what’s going to happen next.
I relate it to this: think about when you’re driving on the highway and you hit a puddle and you hydroplane and your body understands and knows right away that you’re in danger and it just overwhelms your body and you kind of go into [almost] a shock. . . where, as soon as you get past it and you realize that you’re OK now, your heart’s pumping, you’re probably all red. And you just have that moment to yourself where you’re like, “Wow. I could have just died.”
I try to tell people that have never been over there — and luckily I have never been in those circumstances, but have spoken with such an overabundance of guys and people in my organization. . . I understand it; I feel comfortable talking about it — I say, “Take that feeling that you get in a circumstance like that and try to visualize feeling like that every single moment of every single day, not knowing if you’re going to be shot at, who’s going coming around the next corner, when the next grenade gonna go off or IEDs going to go off.”