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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.