Want to Interview the Veteran Population? Here’s What I’ve Learned

For the last half of my graduate career, I have been a qualitative researcher where I examine the intricate details of the populations I study. While preparing to write this piece I looked back and tallied the interviews I’ve done over the past three years; I have conducted 110 interviews with 85-90 different individuals. To some that may seem like a lot, and to others, I’m just beginning. All of those interviews were conducted within the military and veteran population. I’ve interviewed: (a) active-duty service members preparing to transition out of the military and then again when they’re newly minted veterans, (b) wounded, injured, or ill veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts with a wide-range of injuries and service backgrounds, and (c) current and former military spouses. I’m always learning but I’ve accumulated some knowledge about engaging with military and veteran populations for qualitative researchers that I hope will be helpful for others interested in working with this population.

This post is focused on the common issues and questions that arise when studying the veteran population, and can also be relevant for military spouses. Everything I discuss here also applies to research with military members, but there are additional stringent requirements and policies in place by the Department of Defense to take in to consideration if you’re looking to work with the active-duty population. We plan to write a future post outlining and addressing those specific obstacles, so stay tuned!

Here I offer five points of consideration for interviewing the veteran population:

(I) There is No Easy Access

Let’s get the biggest thing out of the way first: there is no easy way to access the military and veteran population. We discussed this in our FAQ about quantitative data sets, but it also applies to qualitative participant recruitment. The Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, base/post commanders, commanding officers, unit leaders etc. are not able to help facilitate outside research. If you plan to recruit military or veteran participants through official channels, you’ll more than likely find it impossible without significant funding or sponsorship from a government agency, a team of researchers, strong personal and institutional network connections to the group you’re interested in, and herculean efforts. The DoD and VA have their own policies and protocols in place to protect the security and identity of servicemembers and veterans, which can severely limit access for outside researchers. In addition, the DoD and VA have their own research priorities, fulfilled by in-house units, centers, and researchers. The military and the VA are large-scale organizations with bureaucratic structures that operate from the top-down, hardly a match for the lone-wolf academic researcher…a lesson that I’ve had to learn the hard way.

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At the beginning of our research on the transition out of the military, Dr. Kleykamp and I printed up flyers advertising our study to hang on military bases, figuring this would be a great way to catch the attention of servicemembers who were about to transition out. Since I’m an active-duty military spouse and can get on base easily in my local area, it seemed like a viable option. After asking around I found out that anything posted on a military base has to be approved through a specific office, and the only posters you do see on base are service-branch sponsored events and messages. Even the Starbucks cafes on base that have the same ‘community boards’ as outside Starbucks were restricted to approved materials only. You’ll run into bureaucratic road-blocks like this everywhere you turn if you’re trying to obtain research participants through official channels.

Even participant recruitment through unofficial channels is challenging. The veteran population is a relatively small proportion of the overall country, but draws a higher interest among researchers than other populations. It’s easy to justify why research about veterans is important, which is why it draws in many interested parties, especially for undergraduate or graduate level thesis projects. Non-profits, service organizations, and research think-tanks (like RAND) receive frequent requests for data access or help with research projects. If you think you’ll be the first one with a research interest in the veteran population or the first one to reach out a particular veteran’s organization for help with your research, think again. Because the veteran population is a small and socially significant group, those with access guard and protect it and may be weary (or apathetic) about outside research. While I’ve been lucky enough to be received with open arms by a couple of organizations, not every ask has been met with success. I have been grilled by directors about my research and the intentions of my work, I have been told no, and the common non-response. While community organizations are a great entry point for gaining access and connecting with the veteran community, it doesn’t mean it will be easy.

The two strategies that I’ve found success with are informal networking and building significant connections with community organizations.

(1) Start with who you know: Identify if you know anyone who is associated with the military community that could help you spread the word about your research. Reach out to them and ask if they would be willing to pass along information on your study to their friends, family, and colleagues. It’s also a good idea to post your research announcement via social media—using Facebook, Twitter, or other platforms where friends and family can easily ‘share’ the post with their community. You never know who someone will know or what will lead you to an interested interview participant. While this may not be the most fruitful line of effort, it’s a productive step you can take in spreading the word. But recognize that this kind of snowball or convenience sampling will lead to a particular composition of your research sample.

(2) Connect to organizations in your community that serve military or veterans. In my own dissertation research this has been the key to my success. Official channels are difficult to access, but veteran service organizations and other non-profits are usually well-connected in the local community and more amenable to helping researchers locate interested participants. I identified veteran service organizations (VSO’s) working with my population of interest, and volunteered my time and built relationships with the community. Not only did this help me to find veterans interested in being interviewed, but it gave me insights into the community and culture of wounded veterans that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. While conducting my dissertation interviews for a little over a year, I volunteered with two local organizations 1-2 times per week. My work with these organizations was a mutual investment: I dedicated consistent time to these organizations, building rapport and trust with the leadership and the community of veterans they served, and in return they were able to help me connect with veterans who were interested in being interviewed. As researchers and scholars, we have a lot to offer these organizations and the people who are on the ground, hustling to provide support and services for veterans. It could be as simple as volunteering our time, or using our research skills to help them tell a more compelling story on their website or helping to design a survey instrument they may need. When I was looking to start my data collection, I identified the organizations that I was interested in working with and approached them with an active interest in volunteering or helping them in some way. I always recommend disclosing your intentions of research recruitment up-front, because the goal is to build trust and rapport with important community leaders and gatekeepers. I would advise any qualitative researchers interested in studying the veteran population to prioritize networking with informal groups or community organizations in their data collection process.

(II) Military-Connection Matters

The military and veteran community is surprisingly insular, and has an affinity for those who have a personal connection to military service or the military lifestyle. Perhaps this is emblematic of a military-civilian divide where less than 1% of the current population serves in the military in an era where an all-volunteer military has been at war for almost 15 years. The military experience is unique, representing a lifestyle with a constellation of factors that civilians rarely experience, reinforcing a distinction between “us” and “them.” The preferential nature of the community may also be a consequence of the growing threats against the military with shootings on military bases and threats of enemies attacking family members on Facebook. Regardless of the reason, having a military connection will help you in gaining access to this research population.

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In the materials I distributed about my dissertation research, I always listed the fact that I am a military spouse ahead of my status as a Sociology PhD student. As a researcher, I would hope that my credentials would give me some credit and legitimacy (which they do), but it was the fact that I’m a military spouse that built trust with my research participants. I put military spouse first because I knew that it would matter, but I didn’t realize just how much it mattered until I started interviewing veterans. Without knowing much about my study or my personal background, many of my participants said to me “Oh, you’re a military spouse? I trust that you’ll do good things with this information then.” Even though I’m not a wounded veteran, and neither is my husband—it didn’t matter. My connection to the military community granted me access because I’m considered an insider—I understand the military, it’s unique lifestyle, and I’m invested in the community because I’m part of it. I’m not sure how far this circle of trust extends—would you be granted the same trust if you have a sibling in the military, or a grandparent who has served? I imagine it would depend on the group and era of veterans you are interviewing.

If you are a civilian who doesn’t have a direct connection to the military, you may have a hard time being seen as trustworthy among the veteran population. You will likely need to think about extra steps you can take to be seen as someone who is invested and knowledgeable about the community. This is where volunteering and a regular physical presence can help you build trust with your population of interest. My other advice would be to seek counsel from someone in the veteran community that you are looking to study. Pick their brain and see if they can provide some ideas about how to establish rapport and legitimacy.

Even if you do have a military connection, realize that it is still a very protective and protected community. Social media has become a popular way for military spouses and military families to connect with one another. I’m part of several Facebook groups in my local area for military spouses—it’s a great place to learn about local events, connect with other spouses and ask questions like “who has a good hairdresser, dentist, etc?” to hundreds of other military spouses. This may sound like a goldmine for participant recruitment, it may not be as easy as you think. As threats against the military and their family members have grown, social media administrators have cracked down on verifying and vetting military spouses before they are accepted in to the group. Some groups are “by invitation only”—you have to know someone to get in. Other groups require you to respond to a series of questions that validate your status as a local military spouse before letting you in. These groups also usually have rules about what you can and cannot post, and research announcements aren’t always welcomed. In my research with the wounded veteran community, I found that volunteers and leaders were often very protective of the wounded veterans they serve. In one of the organizations I volunteered for, several of the volunteers were thought of as “moms” and were fiercely protective of “the guys”—looking out for anyone who may unfairly take advantage of them. Even with a military connection, expect that it may take work to build someone’s trust and confidence in you.

(III) Understand Military Culture

Another way that a military connection can benefit the researcher is the knowledge and familiarity of the military structure and culture. Veterans are produced from the military institution, and even though they are back in the civilian world their participation in the military was likely a transformational experience in their life. To know about veterans, you also need to understand a bit about the military and it’s culture. Having some basic knowledge about the military community will help you to connect with your participants.

You can think of the military as a unique social world existing within society. Each of the five service branches serves a different purpose in the overall mission to protect and defend the nation, and each branch is guided by different values and traditions. The military has a hierarchical leadership structure that rewards authoritative and decisive leadership styles, enforcing order and discipline. Servicemembers are expected to have a strong work ethic, maintain high levels of physical fitness, and serve the team before themselves. The values of the military combined with the mission-orientation of the institution and frequent relocation builds a unique kind of camaraderie among servicemembers and their families. Military culture often promotes sharp and abrasive humor that isn’t typically seen in civilian workplaces—a noticeable feature for anyone who has spent time around the military community.

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For outsiders, it can be easy to assume that “the military” has “a culture”, but the military is a diverse community that has many different sub-cultures within it. Marine Infantry Officers are going to be very different from Navy Submariners who are going to be different from Air Force Fighter Pilots. It’s important to pay attention to the population you are interested in studying and consider what their particular experiences in the military may have been like. If you walk into interviews expecting every veteran to be like the war-hungry guys in the movie The Hurt Locker, you’ll be quickly pegged as someone with a naïve view of the military. Likewise, if you think everyone who enlisted was caught up in a “poverty draft”, couldn’t afford college, or chose enlistment to escape a bad neighborhood, you’ll be surprised.

Make sure you learn a little bit about military culture for your own background knowledge, but don’t go overboard trying to impress veterans with your military know-how. You aren’t likely to be convincing unless you served. It’s easy to get caught up in the “coolness” of the military and all the acronyms they throw at you—you want them to feel like you know what they’re talking about and project that you belong. I’ve been there, done that! But my advice is: if you don’t understand something a veteran is talking about, don’t be shy about asking them to explain it. The military has an acronym for everything and veterans are so used to using them that they forget that other people may not know what it means. If you’re unclear about something, ask. I’ve found that military and veterans are always happy to explain and clarify anything I didn’t understand. If you don’t ask, you may miss something important and crucial to your research.

(IV) Demographic Realities in the Veteran Population

The veteran population is determined by who serves in the military. Who is eligible for military service has changed over time dependent on certain social conditions: conscription vs. all volunteer force, exclusionary policies, and recruitment standards. Military veterans are a small group and are disproportionately male, from lower to middle class backgrounds, from the West and South, from more rural areas, and tend to have other family members who have served in the military. When planning a qualitative study, you won’t be able to capture every demographic category because veterans are not a representative sample of society. The veteran community can also vary in your local area (or area of study) based on proximity to military facilities. I live in Virginia Beach and there are more Navy veterans in this community because there are several Navy bases in this area. Veterans may have retired in Virginia Beach after their service, or settled in the area because of the close proximity to benefits like the commissary and the VA. In the area around Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas there are more Army veterans because it’s a large Army base. Before you start or design your study, get to know the demographics of the veteran population you’re interested in and the local area representation so you won’t be surprised later once you try to recruit participants.

Within the military itself, there are important distinctions among servicemembers that influence the trajectory of their military service and their transition back to the civilian world. There are many different ways you can divide the military community: service branch, active-duty/national guard/reserves, rank, MOS/job, deployment experiences, etc. As a qualitative researcher it’s important to be intentional in your study design and assess which of these differences are salient to the study. For some, the officer/enlisted divide won’t be significant and therefore shouldn’t be a main focus of recruitment efforts or should be held constant, but for others the first priority should be to ensure equal representation from different ranks. Knowledge of the differences in these military communities can help to evaluate what’s relevant to your study.    

(V) Come to the Interview with a Clean Slate

My last bit of advice has to do with the interview itself: when you start the interview, check your own biases at the door. Unfortunately, veterans are used to being stereotyped in society. Whether it’s feeling pressure that everyone is looking at them like a “ticking time bomb” because of their combat experience, or the uncomfortable gratitude of complete strangers coming up to say “thank you for your service” or lauding them as a hero—veterans are used to having others project their own meaning onto their military service. In any interview with a military-connected individual, I come with the intention of creating space for the interviewee to tell me their story in their own way. I don’t feel bad for them, nor do I praise them, I listen to their experiences and the meaning they’ve given their military service. It is our responsibility as researchers to always give our interview participants the respect of coming to the interview space with a clean slate.

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Are there other important tips and advice that I missed? Feel free to leave a comment below!

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One comment

  1. This post hits home with me as well, so thanks for sharing.

    I have been struggling to get a critical mass of participants for a qualitative interview study on the Latina/o American Student Veteran Transition to Higher Education. I have made some great less-than-formal meetings with informants, gatekeepers and possible participants and leave the ball in their court, hand my university biz card and hope to plan an interview when they’re ready. I don’t want to come across as pushy. Their enthusiasm is there but there’s hardly any follow up contact.

    One veteran and I had a great chat in an informal meeting and pretty much through the natural flow of the conversation we could have handled the interview right there if I was prepared. Since then, I always keep a digital recorder, Informed Consent forms, Interview Guides other relevant IRB items with me or in the car if I was going to meet some student veterans at a happy hour, tailgate or other function and by an off chance meet a vet who fit the criteria of my study.

    I’ve learned to be flexible and try to anticipate opportunities for research contacts that evolve in ways I may not have expected… and be ready to gather data on the go in unconventional settings, like a freewheeling journalist.

    Cheers,
    Jonathan

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