Memorial Day 2012 – Do Veterans Really Need a Welcome Home Gift? Or Just a Chance?

Recently, on May 6th, 2012, Admiral Mike Mullen co-authored a well-received editorial in the Washington Post entitled A Welcome Home Gift for Veterans: Jobs. Hard to argue with that sentiment…or is it?

Jobs are not a gift. A gift is a freebie. Something given, gratis. Free of any recompense or obligation to return the favor (supposedly, but we know how regifting works). But I am not so sure that “gift” is the right language or the right image we want Americans to have when it comes to the issue of veteran employment and re-entry into a post-combat, post-military civilian workforce.

In my eyes, veterans not only have earned the right to compete for a place in the workplace in the global free market, but are eminently qualified to perform and contribute as value creators. For those of you who have read the book Moneyball or seen the movie by the same name starring Brad Pitt, the central theme is that Billy Beane created value (both by winning a championship and by making money!) by finding and extracting performance from assets in a labor market that were overlooked by traditional baseball metrics. I submit that this is the fundamental dynamic that is at work as veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan enter the civilian labor market today, and will continue to do so for the next decade.

From a hiring manager or employer’s point of view, hiring a veteran is no gift. It’s not a give-away. Its making a shrewd business judgement based on an evaluation of what that veteran can bring to the workforce. Its not an act of charity, but an act of self-interest. Its about finding and extracting value from a traditionally and currently overlooked asset in the labor market, where other employers are not making that same judgement. In that sense, it gives the hiring manager or employer a competitive advantage, in an economic environment where capital is scarce and fiercely contested, and everyone needs every edge and advantage one can get.

With all due respect to Admiral Mullen, and I appreciate his message, but jobs do not equal gifts. An article entitled Record Suicide Rates Highest Among Jobless detailed a study that found suicidal ideation far more prevalent among the unemployed. Another recent article The Best Medicine Might Just be a Job cites “Study after study correlates unemployment with suicidality” and a “two-fold to three-fold increased relative risk of death by suicide.”

Two thousand five hundred years ago, Thucydides observed in his History of the Peloponnesian War, that the Athenian politicians found it was easier to honor the dead than care for the living. What was true then remains true today. This Memorial Day, as we remember more than 6,000 dead in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 50,000 wounded, and several hundred thousand permanently disabled – lets remember the approximately million veterans who are unemployed and looking for work.

Jobs equal a chance for veterans to re-enter the civilian workforce and re-integrate into American civilian society, having earned the hard way – through blood and sacrifice and suffering – a shot at making their American dream a reality.

Wanted: A Good Job and Some Understanding? I’m not so sure…

Four articles caught my attention this past few days. The first was titled Army Sgt Born in CT killed in Afghanistan. Sgt Edward J. Frank, 26, of Hartford CT made the final measure of devotion this past weekend when he was killed by an IED. Sgt Frank was on his third combat tour, two in Iraq, and this third in Afghanistan. He leaves behind a wife and three young children.  May he Rest in Peace, and his family’s grief be assuaged. Unfortunately, he is not the only son of Connecticut to die in Afghanistan this month, as Chief Petty Officer Brian Bill, 31 and a Navy SEAL, of Stamford CT, was also killed in Afghanistan.

The second was an editorial in the NY Times by Jonathan Raab of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. The editorial, Wanted: a Good Job and Some Understanding ends with a plaintive “Everybody wants to support the troops until they have to  share in the hardship and sacrifice,” I said. “Then all of a sudden that bumper sticker or that flag pin doesn’t mean anything anymore.”  I agree with the sentiment in general, but I have more to say. Look at the current politics – there is almost no talk about the wars, or about the effects they are having on the people fighting them, or their families, or society at large. Veteran unemployment in general is 5% higher than the civilian population; for disabled veterans it is twice, and in some states, three times as high as the general civilian population. In economic times like these – its every man for himself. People are worried about putting food on their own table, and about paying their own rent or mortgage. Unless they’re veterans or related to veterans – they’ve got other things to worry about. I submit we should not be looking for understanding from civilians – we should be looking to understand civilians, in the same way we tried to understand Iraqis or Afghans when we were deployed. In other words – civilians aren’t going to change. We’re not going to change them. We can win them over, we can overcome their fear and prejudices, just as we did with the civilian populations in Iraq and Afghanistan. And we have an advantage – no one is killing them or their families on a daily basis.

The third article was in the Connecticut Post and was entitled Returning Veterans Face Struggles Returning to the Home Front. The article talks about veterans experiences in CT returning to a civilian environment, and the trials and tribulations thereof. The theme emerges, as quoted by Joy Kiss, founder of the homeless veteran shelter Homes for the Brave in Bridgeport CT – “The returning Iraqi and Afghanistan veterans are becoming homeless quicker than the Vietnam era veterans. They’re coming back to jobs they had, but they’re coming back different so they lose those jobs. And then, as a result of the loss of the job, they lose their homes. And then on top of the stress of combat, they may lose their marriages, they may turn to alcohol or drugs to cope with whatever demons they’re living with. You just get layer after layer after layer.”

And last, this article More Homeless Female Veterans in NC, SC posted in the CT Post.The article quotes a female veteran who says she thought her work experience in the military would help her land a job “but instead potential employers seemed to dismiss her as a serious candidate.”

The message I take away is “We’re different.” And these articles, attempting to chronicle what its like to be a returning vet, actually entrenches that. And we are different. In fact, we’re special. We’re doers. We’re people who make things happen. Who accomplish missions under the most dire and difficult of circumstances. We’re people who negotiated with sheikhs and village elders and ran towns and districts and built bridges and energy grids. We’re not people who complained about not being understood or about being given a job. We went out and did what we did. That’s what we do. We don’t need civilians to understand us – we need to understand them!  Developing working relationships, doing economic development projects, accomplishing missions – these are all things we can do – whether its in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Connecticut.

With all due respect to the various authors of the articles, We don’t need civilians to understand us or give us a job.