Returning home from war or conflict brings a flood of pent up emotions to our veterans and their families. They have been dreaming of that return since the day they walked into a strange country. And now, many just want to pick up where they left off when they first deployed over a year ago. The first months are spent reacquainting with family, friends, co-workers, etc. But what they realize is that things have changed since they left. The family had to readjust, to fill the role of mom or dad, or helpful son or daughter, which was vacated during the period they were gone. The same applies if they are returning to an employer. Is the same job still there or was it filled by another person, and would they need to qualify for another position? Change is difficult for anyone, and they are now living it on all fronts.
Medically, they may have suffered an injury or trauma in service to their country. Physical injuries, for the most part, can be addressed. But unlike Vietnam, these veterans and the community are now familiar with the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). What is the impact of this for the veteran and the employer?
There are definitely a lot of things to think about, but it can be successfully accomplished with some planning. Veterans have learned new skills and new attitudes that will enhance his or her skills in the workplace. One word they are very familiar with is “mission.” Everything in the military is about the “mission” – which needs to be successfully accomplished no matter what the obstacles are. Many times, the lives of their buddies, as well as their own and other people’s lives, rest on their shoulders. One young Iraq veteran returning home at 22 years old was in charge of running convoys through Baghdad daily. He was responsible for the lives of 20-30 troop soldiers and millions of dollars’ worth of equipment. The need to pull the “rabbit out of whatever hat” was necessary to insure their safety and completion of the mission. He or she is returning home to friends and co-workers whose “stress” is on a much different level. This individual has had some of the best training possible from our military and has accomplished the unthinkable. Now that veteran is ready to return with the maturity we wish a number of our employees had, as well as the technical and job skills learned during their service in a very hi-tech military. He or she also possesses the ability to figure out how to accomplish the task when the answers are not online or cannot be obtained from a book.
One thing to keep in mind when a veteran returns to work from deployment or has applied for a job is that, depending on how long it has been since they returned home, they may need a period of adjustment. If they’ve worked for you before, consider bringing them on a part-time basis for a number of weeks until they work through all the issues of resettling. Heck, figuring out a new barber or hairdresser is a piece of the puzzle some days. Just like any major move, the veteran is getting reacquainted with the community, as a lot of things you don’t notice in everyday life could be a major change for him or her. This may include things such as figuring out transportation to and from work, getting their car ready to go, checking to see if local transportation schedules or routes have changed, and things like that. They may also have various medical appointments when they return, which is important that they maintain for their benefit and that of the employer. Most, if not all, of their healthcare needs may be provided by the Veterans Affairs (VA), which could be a major cost savings for both of you.
More importantly, you may have a veteran working at your company (some larger employers have Veteran Clubs) who can serve as a “peer” to help the veteran quickly get acquainted to the systems and procedures at your company. There’s no faster and better way, than two “brothers or sisters” who have walked in their boots and made the transition home, helping each other out. They are in a better position to answer questions about where they can apply for disability benefits, schooling or training benefits, and local veteran resources, that your HR department would not come close to answering. They can serve as a battle buddy to talk to about personal issues they both can understand. A veteran who was deployed in harm’s way does not want to be judged by “civilians” on what they did or did not do in their service.
And then there’s PTSD, a term that doesn’t help explain what it really is. George Carlin (for those old enough to remember) had a routine that talked about how society has built words that really don’t express what it truly means. In a nut shell, our body makes changes depending on the environment that keeps us alive. It’s a normal reaction to abnormal circumstances. For example, if you’ve been in a car accident, for weeks and sometimes for months, you might continue to hear a squealing tire or brakes, that will twist your head around. If you were here on 9-11, for weeks the sound of a plane overhead may cause you to look up when you never did before. War is like a thousand different noises and smells that may have taken your life or limb. When I served in Vietnam, I’d wake up in a bunker during a rocket attack wondering how I got there. My ears had picked out the sounds of an incoming rocket (versus an outgoing rocket – they are different sounds) and dealt with road side bombs too many times. So a piece of trash along a roadside or in a place that’s not normal may get the heart beating faster, and bring their attention somewhere else. A physical reaction to sharp noises is something that is typical in a returning veteran.
For years, I did not realize that spaces without windows would increase my stress levels from the bad experiences I had. The majority of veterans returning home have some level of PTSD, but most will resolve themselves in a small amount of time – it’s normal for the body to recondition itself. If it goes on for an extended period of time where it notably affects the veteran, their job, or co-workers, then it’s time to have a conversation with them to see if they might want to look for help. That’s always a tough call as none of us wants to admit we have a condition we can’t control. It’s even harder for a veteran who was taught to be tough. My recommendation is to find another veteran in your company who can have that conversation without embarrassing the veteran, or driving them further into denial. Now if you don’t have a veteran in your company, consider reaching out to a veterans organization that provides job training and peer work.
This is why I started Dryhootch, a veterans non-profit organization run by veterans and family peers who take away the stigma of post-deployment issues. Our D2E (Deployment to Employment) program involves working with companies and the veteran to insure the right job match and conduct ongoing check-in visits with their peers. We have also provided training to the HR staff of several companies to make them aware of programs that can be extremely helpful to their veterans. You can also reach out to your County Veterans Service Officer (CVSO) who can offer help and resources as part of their county government services.
For the employer, there are various job training grants and tax incentives to hire veterans, both at the state and national level. Many communities also have a Veterans Chamber of Commerce, which is an excellent resource for everyone.
Knowledge is the key. A veteran can be that pillar of maturity, knowledge, experience, and can-do attitude that you are hard pressed to find in today’s society. School can’t teach you these, but here you have it in one package, an American veteran. Have one serve for you, and you’ll be glad you did. Know that they have different needs to adjust to home and job, but if you pair them with another veteran, it will be good not just for the veteran, but for your company and your employees as well.