PARSIPPANY, N.J. -- When the Vietnam War ended, U.S. soldiers were greeted with jeers, antiwar demonstrators and behaviors so hostile that military superiors warned returning veterans not to wear their uniforms in public. It took years before Vietnam vets received the respect they deserved, and a duly chastened and shamed public was determined not to repeat this again.
Looking at the receptions today's soldiers receive, typically warm greetings, often by cheering crowds who, even if they don't agree with the war, support the troops, it's hard to believe history is repeating itself, even if in a different form. While not facing the public shaming they once did, those who wear a uniform today still battle with discrimination, albeit one that is much more subtle and harder to prove: that of not being hired for a job, even when they're the most qualified candidate, because they were or are a soldier.
"The economy makes it difficult for anyone looking for a job right now, and it's gotten worse for those who are or were in the military," said Dan Honig, chief operating officer of www.MilitaryVetJobs.com -- and also a Navy veteran. "Our troops face discrimination from companies on many fronts now.
"It used to be just a perception issue for returning soldiers -- a lack of understanding of what trained service people can bring to the table as an employee or how military skills can be utilized in a civilian workplace. Increased media attention around post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has made some employers more concerned about the stability of those who have served in a combat zone, and now organizations are discriminating in hiring those who haven't been deployed yet as well, the reservists and National Guardsmen. Their attitude is, 'I'm not going to hire someone who is at risk to leave and who I have to hold a job for.'"
Tim Larger*, a Marine, returned from Iraq eight months ago and has trouble finding a job. Interview questions quickly turn from his qualifications, which most prospective employers and human resources hiring managers tell him are impressive, to his service ... and not in a positive way.
"The first time it happened, I was kind of shocked," Larger said. "The questions were kind of vague, like, 'Did I see or have to do anything stressful? How easily was I integrating myself back into society?' I replied that being away from your family and the world you know, basically being isolated in that environment was stressful, but I had it easier than a lot of other soldiers.
"I guess that wasn't a good enough answer because finally the HR rep just flat-out asked me: Did I suffer from any PTSD that might make me more apt to hurt my co-workers? I mean, are they allowed to ask me that?"
Larger shakes his head. "I'm proud to have done my duty for this country, yet I get the sense some companies think we're time bombs waiting to go off," Larger said. "We're not. We're just men and women happy to be home and trying to get back to work."
Jenna Elegg* also has trouble finding a job, but due more to her potential call to serve. "I'm in the Reserves. ... Employers read that and instead of realizing all I can bring to the table due to my civilian and military background, they focus on my leaving. They ask me how much I'm at risk for being deployed, how long I might be away ... and I see it on their faces."
As organizations work with employers to help remove these misconceptions, what can veterans themselves do to help increase their odds of being hired? Said Honig: "As awareness of the unemployment rates among veterans grows, so do the dedicated resources available to them to help them find jobs."
Some of these resources include:
Transition services: In addition to a host of other veteran-geared programs and assistance, the Department of Labor offers a Transition Assistance Program (TAP) with programs geared at helping veterans overcome employment hurdles, learn about job searches, market conditions, resume, cover letter and interviewing techniques and more.
Job boards: "There are many online job boards that promote jobs and companies that are geared toward hiring veterans," Honig said. "For example, our site offers a link between those with military backgrounds looking for work and employers who realize the value of hiring them. You can apply for jobs directly, post your resume and receive customized job alerts."
Knowing your rights: if you feel you have been discriminated against due to your military background/service, try to work things out with the employer before filing a lawsuit. The burden of proof is on you to prove the discrimination. There are many sources you can turn to, to help you determine whether you should pursue this line of action.
One such resource, the ESGR (Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve), works to educate employers on the value of employees with military service, increase awareness of the law and resolve conflicts through mediation. The ESGR and the Department of Labor partnered to create FAQ's around the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA).
The ESGR also provides ombudsman services to aid with USERRA compliance issues.
"I used to highlight my military training," Elegg said quietly. "Now I've been thinking maybe I should bury it." Her forehead burrows as a frown crosses her lips. "Who would have thought it's come to this?"
* Names have been changed for privacy purposes.
Want to Know More About the Military?
Be sure to get the latest news about the U.S. military, as well as critical info about how to join and all the benefits of service. Subscribe to Military.com and receive customized updates delivered straight to your inbox.