As we finally arrive at this momentous Veterans Day, marked by the date 11-11-11 and saddled by 10 years of war, we as a nation are still struggling to understand what it means to be a U.S. military veteran.
Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the private workplace, where the skills and experiences of military veterans are so undervalued that Congress and President Obama are shoe-horning a tax credit to businesses that hire unemployed veterans. Is this how far the value of the veteran has fallen?
A recent Bureau of Labor Statistics release shows that male veterans aged 18-24 were unemployed at a rate near 22 percent; unacceptable for many reasons, but wholly unnecessary because these men are skilled, motivated and disciplined, not to mention proven assets in the worst conditions imaginable.
I sincerely hope that the unemployment epidemic amongst veterans is a reflection of the overall employment climate, but I regretfully suspect that it is due to misguided assumptions about the mental health of our returning warriors. Army researches suspect that up to 31 percent of returning troops are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the psychological effect of multiple combat tours.
While PTSD is certainly an issue that must be addressed, it is hardly a new phenomenon that is suddenly crippling a generation of veterans. Sit down and talk with the veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and they will all tell you the same things -- PTSD is just a new name for a problem as old as war itself. Our nation's place in the world today was secured on the backs of men returning from Europe and the Pacific who dealt with the same issues of reintegration, and history has not questioned their ability to cope.
Recently, as the staggering unemployment numbers for veterans have become headline news, some major corporations have stepped up and announced major veteran hiring initiatives. Companies such as Tyson Foods, Coca Cola, ConAgra and Unilever all publicly pledged to begin hiring vets in order to reverse the trend.
Helping to make the announcement, President Obama stated: "These companies here today, they care about this country and those who serve it," missing the point and failing to capitalize on an opportunity to portray why the decision to hire veterans was a wise one. Hiring veterans is not about charity. Veterans don't need charity, they need to be understood. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, who make up only 1 percent of the population, need the other 99 percent of America to realize their value, to stop treating them like liabilities and start treating them like the assets they are.
A perfect example recently hit my inbox. A Marine whom I served with in Iraq, Matt, wrote me an email last week, in it he spoke of his inability to find a job as an E.M.T. in a hospital. He talked about how every job opening came back with the same thing: he lacked experience in a hospital setting. I responded quickly, asking him for more details. He wrote this response:
I am a nationally registered E.M.T., and hold a cert as an Electrocardiogram Technician (EKG tech), I also have my certifications in: Advanced Cardiac Life Support, Pediatric Advanced Life Support, Neonatal Resuscitation, CRP/BLS and I'm still "not qualified" because I don't have any experience. Can you believe that? I honestly really don't know what else I can do. I've applied for dozens of positions over the last year, and the majority of the time I don't even get a courtesy email of saying, "Thanks for applying, but we went with someone else.
Let me tell you something about Matt and his experience. My unit was once ambushed on a road in the Anbar Province. We came under heavy machine gun and RPG fire, and one of our Marines was shot in the throat in the opening seconds. Separated from the rest of our unit, Matt followed me across 200 meters of open field, simultaneously calling in a complicated medical evacuation report over his radio while returning fire with his rifle. Throughout the engagement Matt remained steady, calmly coordinating the helicopter pick up all while staying in the fight.
Matt, and millions of other veterans, has all the experience he'll ever need. There is no task, no routine and no obstacle that Matt is not willing or capable of overcoming. This Veterans Day I hope that our nation's employers finally realize the value of veterans like Matt, and stop looking at the wrong reasons to hire (or not hire) veterans.