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Op-Ed: Post-9/11 Veterans And The Employment Barriers They Face

January 08, 2016


The opening question Joanne Collins was asked during her first job interview following Army deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan was “How damaged are you?” That same interviewer would never risk violating employment law by asking a woman applicant if she intended to become pregnant. But many Post-9/11 veterans I meet with say they are viewed as an exotic species that can be asked anything. In a final round of interviews, a 40-year-old former Navy Seal with three children was asked how many people he had killed.


Thanks to the growing number of companies giving hiring preference to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, their chronically high unemployment rate is dropping and now nearly that of non-veterans. Yet, my discussions with both Post-9/11 veterans and hiring officials throughout the country convince me those who served are still subject to more intrusive scrutiny than other applicants.

Administrators who do the actual screening and hiring confide to me they regard combat veterans as admirable, but as potential employment risks. They worry about the damage someone with PTSD or traumatic brain injury can inflict on co-workers or customers. While more veterans are finding jobs, others are being rejected because their resumes read “deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq.” Human resources staff I speak with see Post-9/11 veterans as different than those who served in other wars, as more likely to have sustained trauma.

Post-9/11 veterans are different than those who served in earlier wars. Most veterans of WWII, Korea and Viet Nam–many of them draftees–considered themselves citizen-soldiers temporarily in a world they never planned to enter. Conversely, over half of Post-9/11 veterans, all of them volunteers, say they expected to retire from the military after careers of 20 years or more. They regarded themselves as professionals defined by their branch of service, not as citizen-soldiers.

Most I spoke with who left before retirement did so because repeated deployments burdened them with injuries or disrupted family ties. Many see life outside the military as unwelcoming, accepting them only on the condition they retain some of their military traits while quickly eliminating others. They are not reentering a world they left only temporarily, but one in which they feel themselves outliers having difficulty attaining their primary objective, a job.

Employers–corporate and non-profit–could provide an invaluable service to veterans by inviting them to employment-awareness workshops conducted by experienced hiring officials. Many leaving the armed forces need help in preparing compelling resumes, role-playing job interviews, learning the culture of a civilian enterprise. Participating organizations are likely to find promising candidates among those involved in such programs.

I have interviewed nearly 100 Post-9/11 veterans, some happily employed, others unemployed or in unfulfilling jobs, some recent college graduates just beginning their job search. It pains me to hear robust, intelligent men and women speak of themselves as “damaged goods,” “having come back excited about my new life, but now wondering if there’s a place in it for me,” “seeing everyone around me in a bubble I can’t enter.” Those job hunting longer are beginning to speak of their combat experience as a liability, and have deleted it from their resumes.

Irrespective of the job they are applying for, many veterans say they are routinely asked if they aren’t more suited for police or security work. Others add that they are often described as “overqualified.” A former combat medic with extensive training, some of it in highly-rated civilian hospitals between deployments, was told on being rejected that he was overqualified to perform the duties of a Registered Nurse, but not certified for those of a Nurse Practitioner.

Their discipline, team loyalty, respect for authority, steadiness under stress are valued in factories, retail centers and offices. But any flash of emotion immediately raises red flags. A former paratrooper was asked by his manager if he had considered using his martial arts training during a minor disagreement with a co-worker.

Companies can bridge the gap between veterans and those assessing their qualifications with some training and technical innovation. It would not be difficult for employers to program frequently used military job descriptions into their civilian equivalent. Simply converting information on a DD214–the Honorable Discharge document–into work experience would be a boon to veterans. One hour spent with co-workers who served would help human resources staff establish closer rapport with the veterans they interview.

Recent veterans and those following them into civilian life deserve more thoughtful and creative consideration from employers. Staff doing the hiring must say to themselves “Here are ambitious men and women tested under conditions few of us ever endure. How can we shape their experience into skills our organization needs?”

The over 2.6 million who served in Iraq and Afghanistan represent less than one percent of this country’s population. It’s time to recall what Winston Churchill said after the Battle of Britain: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” The few who have served since 9/11 are owed something by the many, the opportunity to prove they can be as valuable in the workplace as they were on the battlefield.