The Role of Shared Background Knowledge in Post-Military Life

U.S. Army privates listen as their Drill Sgt. instructs them to keep their weapons pointed down range during a convoy live-fire exercise as part of Army basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., Sept. 19, 2006. DoD Photo.

Veterans face many challenges in post-military life. It’s not that these challenges can’t be overcome, or that veterans are somehow deficient because they experience these challenges. It’s what happens when we move from one culture to another. One of the challenges that frustrate many of the veterans I see is that others don’t “get them.” Others don’t understand how they think, why they do what they do. Often the only ones who do “get them” are others who served in the military. Therefore, many veterans will avoid connecting with others, for the very reason of avoiding the discomfort.

One of the reasons for the frustration is that it’s true; there are things that a former service member knows that someone who never served doesn’t know. Just as there are things that you learn if you grow up on a farm that you don’t know if you grow up in the suburbs or the city. The difference is that the city kid doesn’t feel like the farm kid should know what they know. It’s recognized that they come from different cultures, different backgrounds, and know different things.

Veterans, on the other hand, really do what others to understand what they went through. At the same time, we don’t know how to tell them. As I’ve said elsewhere, this is the paradox of the veteran story: we want people to know what we did and how we did it, and nothing in the world can drag our story out of us. One difficulty is that veterans often assume that others know what we know, and when we have to fill in the little details in order to get to the bigger story, then there is frustration.

Shared Background Knowledge

In the field of education, there is a concept called “shared background knowledge” that is critical to learning. A person’s background knowledge is the accumulation of their experiences. Once acquired, that knowledge is used to inform any current information being processed. I heard an example recently. Take the phrase, “Polly put the kettle on the stove so she could make herself some tea.” In order for that sentence to make sense, the reader or listener would have to know certain things. What kettles and stoves are, how you use them together to make tea, that Polly is traditionally a female name. All of these bits of information are the “background knowledge” that helps us to interpret the information presented.

Shared Military Background Knowledge

Anyone who served in the military shares a base of background knowledge with those who served. Each of the military branches, furthermore, have a base of background knowledge that is unique to their community and culture. These fall into the “everyone knows” category; when I try to describe the good and bad places to be stationed in the Army, I compare between Fort Carson, Colorado and Fort Polk, Louisiana. For the Air Force, we talk about the differences between Minot, North Dakota and Colorado Springs, Colorado. For Marines: the comparison of Twenty-Nine Palms to just about anywhere else in the world.

Those who served in the military develop this background knowledge that is shared by others with the same experiences, just as the city kid and country kid does. The difference is that this knowledge is laid on top of their previous knowledge, and each influence the other. This is one of the reasons for the “you’ve changed” comments that many veterans get upon returning home. We learned different things, we now have background knowledge that is not shared by those around us.

Shared Cultural Background Knowledge

The same is true going the opposite way. When a veteran enters a different environment…the workforce or higher education, for example…peers their same age (or younger) may seem to be ahead of them because of a lack of shared background knowledge. “They” seem to know things that we don’t. The stuff we struggle with comes easy to them. The new terms, the strange concepts, all of these are challenging because veterans have no frame of reference for them. I’d like to see them break down and reassemble a rifle in less than two minutes, though…right? Some knowledge that veterans have doesn’t seem to quite fit in post-military life.

One of the problems, and I hear it often, is that we are trained to be service members but nobody takes the time to train us to not be service members. When we joined the military, the shared background knowledge was drilled into us (no pun intended, Drill Sergeant). When we leave the military, though, we have to obtain new background knowledge ourselves. Many times, we don’t know where to start, so we don’t even begin…and feel the knowledge gap between those who served and those who didn’t grow wider and wider.

Assumptions About Shared Background Knowledge

The true frustration occurs when veterans assume that others have the same background knowledge that we do, but they don’t. Or when we think they “should” know what we know, often without us telling them. On the other hand, veterans get frustrated when others assume we know stuff that we don’t. Understanding shared background knowledge goes both ways.

One of the ways to develop background knowledge, both in ourselves and others, is to be open to learning. To listen to each other, to share experiences. I have a colleague who is a mental health professional but is not a veteran. She told me once that her neighbor, a retired Master Sergeant in the Army, is often her source for understanding about the military. She doesn’t require her clients to teach her about the military, she learns it from other sources…many of which include veterans themselves.

Once we both teach and develop background knowledge, then post-military life gets a lot easier.


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Overall ‘Combat Vet Don’t Mean Crazy’ is a very well written, thought-provoking book. As usual, SFC France did a fantastic job! Being a combat veteran myself who has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, I feel there’s a lot of powerful information and tools in this book that you can put to use immediately – even as you’re reading this book. Definitely an excellent read on those days of rest and/or distress. – J.C.

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Duane K. L. France is a combat veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a mental health counselor practicing in the state of Colorado. Do you want to join the conversation regarding veteran mental health? Share, like, and comment. Read Duane's previous posts and follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn. Keep the conversation about #veteranmentalhealth going.