Injured Marine offers tips on how to talk to wounded vets

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Justin Constantine, a former Marine Corps Reserve officer who came home with severe facial injuries after surviving a sniper's bullet to the head in Habbaniyah, Iraq, in 2006, has endured numerous surgeries to reconstruct his head, mouth and face.  Courtesy of Justin Constantine
From Stripes.com
Justin Constantine, a former Marine Corps Reserve officer who came home with severe facial injuries after surviving a sniper's bullet to the head in Habbaniyah, Iraq, in 2006, has endured numerous surgeries to reconstruct his head, mouth and face. Courtesy of Justin Constantine

Injured Marine offers tips on how to talk to wounded vets

by: Seth Robson | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: September 08, 2015

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Justin Constantine, a former Marine Corps Reserve officer who came home with severe facial injuries after surviving a sniper’s bullet to the head in Habbaniyah, Iraq, in 2006, is used to the staring.

Those who speak to him are often uncomfortable, he said.

The disconnect between America’s civilian population and those who have served in the military means people are often uncertain about how to interact with veterans who bear the visible scars of war.

Nine years and multiple surgeries later, the former judge advocate gives motivational speeches and works with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to get jobs for wounded veterans and their caregivers.

But how do you talk to a wounded veteran?

Constantine, who will talk with servicemembers during a visit to Japan later this month, has drawn on his experiences to establish a set of parameters for talking to wounded veterans. The rules are designed to break down the issues in a way that’s respectful to everyone, he said.

He wrote down his rules for talking to wounded veterans after interacting with audience members during motivational speaking engagements.

“When I’m done talking, it is always well received, and people wait and talk to me afterwards,” he said. “Many point out that I’m the first wounded veteran they have talked to.”

The rules are:

Don’t show pity. Treat us like everyone else. No wounded veteran wants to feel like they are pitied. We don’t feel pity for ourselves. We are still here, we have survived and we are looking forward.

  • Don’t bring up post-traumatic stress disorder. A lot of times it comes from a good place, but it is offensive. People assume from Hollywood movies and the news that everybody who comes back from Afghanistan has PTSD. I know what my triggers are and how to deal with situations that exacerbate my PTSD. If you went to war and didn’t come back different, maybe there would be something wrong with that. If veterans want to talk about it with you, they will.
  • Don’t make huge promises. Just be our friend. Wounded veterans get a lot of visits from politicians and community leaders who say stuff like, “Here’s my card. Call me up and I will take care of anything you need.” A lot of times when veterans take people up on those offers, they aren’t honored. We aren’t asking for them in the first place, so don’t bother making them.
  • Don’t assume we are helpless. Do let us help you. We have had to work through the Veterans Administration and the Defense Department on retirement and compensation. We have juggled a lot of different balls. We are dealing with a ton of stuff on our own that other people aren’t having to do. That can be an asset.
  • Don’t ignore our caregivers. Involve them in conversation. They are the unsung heroes of war. There are now different caregiver groups, and there is an emphasis on them. For a long time, they weren’t really recognized. All the attention was on the wounded vets but without them, we wouldn’t be having successful recoveries.

Before he deployed to Iraq, Constantine, a Virginia native, was a lawyer for Homeland Security. His duties in the Marine Corps Reserve involved teaching rules of engagement and the law of war to deploying troops. He volunteered to go to Iraq as the leader of a civil affairs team attached to 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, he said.

At that time, there was heavy fighting in Habbaniyah, a town west of Baghdad in an area that’s still one of Iraq’s most violent.

Constantine’s job took him outside the wire on almost a daily basis. It was during a visit to some local business owners when a bullet from a sniper, who had already fatally shot several other Marines, found its mark.

The bullet entered behind his left ear and exited his mouth. Miraculously, his brain was undamaged.

In the years since, Constantine has endured numerous operations to reconstruct his head, mouth and face, but he still lacks his top set of teeth and part of his tongue.

His injuries, however, don’t appear to have slowed him down. Since leaving the Marines, he’s linked up with the Chamber of Commerce to encourage businesses to hire wounded veterans and their caregivers, and he’s about to publish a book, “My Battlefield, Your Office: Leadership Lessons from the Frontlines.”

Constantine, who now lives in New York, is scheduled to speak Sept. 28-30 at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and camps Kinser, Foster, Hansen and Schwab on Okinawa, and Oct. 2 at Camp Fuji on mainland Japan.

robson.seth@stripes.com

Twitter: @SethRobson1