Real Talk on Veteran Employment

Sunset near Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan. Experiences matter.

Sunset near Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan. Experiences matter.

A new report released today described veterans’ “lack of preparation” and “unrealistic expectations” as reasons for a higher unemployment rate among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans–and reasons why veterans in general have difficulty keeping jobs and fitting in with a civilian workforce. A co-author of the report said the country needs to talk honestly about the challenges veterans face and what they need to succeed.  I agree about honest talk–but we need to change how we’re having this conversation.

I could name literally (yes, literally–try me) hundreds of men and women I’ve worked with in the Army and Air Force who didn’t have a college degree but who I’d trust completely with tasks involving complex, advanced understanding and decisions that had life or death consequences. I can say that because I saw them complete these tasks and make those important decisions, and I’m proud of what they did. Yet there’s no certification anyone can put on that, no degree, no award, no clear marker to identify these incredibly important competencies on a civilian resume.

The men and women who have deployed again and again in post-9/11 conflicts have been busy. They’ve been immersed in working. They haven’t had the same time and opportunities to get the degrees and certifications and civilian career seniority of those who didn’t volunteer to serve. Instead, they kept training and deploying, training and deploying. They’ve managed to understand absurdly complex processes and situations that are hard to explain to other military people, let alone civilians, in order to accomplish their missions. They’ve entered into profoundly clouded moral gray areas and made the best decisions they could at the time, and they’ve learned hard life lessons as a result–which many call wisdom. They’ve learned how to do more with less. They’ve adapted to foreign landscapes and cultures, and found ways to bridge unbridgeable gaps between what is and what should be, between the unlikeliest people and personalities. They’ve learned how to motivate their peers and subordinates and leaders alike by trying and failing and trying and succeeding. They’ve learned the rules, seen all of them broken or inconsistently applied, and yet still managed to carry themselves professionally and with pride in what they do. They’ve seen inefficiencies and became outraged by the lack of results. Many have even done what they could to fix things. They’ve managed their personal lives toward various ends, often amid people they love and with whom they haven’t yet had a full conversation about all they’ve lived and learned in recent years.

And now, when it comes to returning home to find careers that will allow them to move forward for the rest of their lives, they’re being told to scale their expectations. To be more realistic. To do a better job of translating their military skills and experience into civilian language. To respect and adapt to civilian culture. To stand in line and be patient. To be okay with the fact that while they were deployed again and again, others went to school, got the certifications, earned seniority at their jobs, and did civilian work that puts them ahead of anyone who opted to spend months or years or decades in the military.

I have a problem with this.

Here’s an example that got to me from the report:

One post-9/11 veteran quoted in the report described the frustration of having to “start over:” “I was going to be a general manager of a [fast food restaurant] and the idea of that just [expletive] made me want to hang myself, you know. After Afghanistan and all of that, I just couldn’t do it.”

When this veteran says he can’t stand the idea of starting over–and that being the general manager of a fast food restaurant is an unbearable thought after the intensity and importance and high stakes of serving in Afghanistan–I want to reach out and shake someone. Because this represents failure. Failure in understanding, failure in how we’re framing the conversation.

The conversation needs to shift responsibility onto the civilian workforce to figure out some different answers here. If any given employer feels the slightest relief or appreciation that their entire workforce wasn’t drafted to go to war since 2001–and that men and women stepped up to serve voluntarily to serve those multiple deployments–then they need to show it in their hiring and promotion practices, and not just their presence at veterans job fairs or flag-waving corporate advertising. It’s great that Wal Mart wants to hire veterans. But I don’t know any veteran who endured and accomplished what they did in Afghanistan who wanted to come home and work at a Wal Mart, or who couldn’t do much better.

This isn’t a sense of entitlement. It’s not an unrealistic expectation. It’s merely a valuation of the complex, important, and advanced experiences that so many men and women who went to war gained and can bring back to civilian employment if anyone cares to try and recognize it.

Contrary to what a well-meaning, but off-putting editorial in yesterday’s New York Times said, veterans didn’t leave what they saw in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s all become part of us. There are challenges with this, but it was life experience, it was work experience, it was the experience of being tasked with the impossible and finding a way to make something meaningful and important out of it.

Veterans shouldn’t have to sell themselves to employers, to scale their expectations downward about what their experiences qualified them to manage and to accomplish in the civilian world, or to figure out new and creative ways to adapt to civilian life. If given a chance, veterans will show civilian employers what they’re made of. And they just might outshine their colleagues who spent these post-9/11 years polishing up their fancy resumes.

Sure, let’s keep talking about the military-civilian divide–there’s endless material there that will last us for generations. Or folks can keep saying the military needs to do a better job of producing civilians–while it might better spend its time and resources on bringing in the best recruits and keeping them, and making the changes needed to institutionalize the hard lessons learned from recent wars and to become a strong and agile force capable of meeting present and future threats to our nation. Or we can keep saying that veterans need to do this or that. I’m all for talking out the issues. But do not expect this talk to result in veterans getting the jobs they would’ve accessed in the civilian workforce had they not been participating in our nation’s wars.

What I propose is this: if you’re an employer in a business that would make a veteran feel proud and honored to work at and you like the fact that you didn’t have to go to war–then hire as many veterans as you can. If you’re an employer and you like the fact that other people volunteered to go to war–then place those veterans into the highest positions of responsibility you can possibly swallow based on their years and experience. If you’re a supervisor and you like that you didn’t have to go to war and you work with veterans–then resource those veterans’ career development as much as you can so they get up to speed in a career as quickly as possible. If you’re a regular civilian who knows veterans–encourage them to reach for the stars, to never give up, and to keep those expectations high because those years and deployments and sweat and experience and sacrifice were all fucking worth something.

5 thoughts on “Real Talk on Veteran Employment

  1. Great post. I’m a military brat (among so many other things that I am) & an advocate for the military and the men & women who serve – past, present & future. I think this is a very important post and I’ve re-blogged it for my friends/followers/readers to read (with a link back to your post, of course). Thank you for writing this and allowing it to be shared with other readers.


  2. Excellent article. When I got out of the corps it was pretty much a sink-or-swim transition, and it saddens but doesn’t surprise me that more than a few of my brothers either sank or barely treaded water.


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