Lies They Tell Transitioning Veterans: You Are a Hero, You Are a Loser

veteran at RecruitMilitary career fair

This series entitled “Lies They Tell Transitioning Veterans” first appeared on the RecruitMilitary website and was contributed by Peter A. Gudmundsson, a former U.S. Marine artillery officer and the CEO of RecruitMilitary, a leading provider of veteran hiring solutions.

When I was a young Marine battalion intelligence officer during the mid-Eighties, we used to joke that every "threat briefing" would depict the Soviets and their allies as either undefeatable supermen or pathetic losers. One day, they would show pictures of (the Swedish actor) Dolph Lundgren as a Spetsnaz super warrior and emphasize the 5:1 ratio of their tanks or fighter aircraft to ours as if to underscore our hopelessness in any future conflict. The next time, the intelligence briefers would tell us not to worry because most Soviet units did not even know where they were on the battlefield because the unit alcoholics would have drained all the fluid from their compasses. Likewise, the intelligence analysts speculated that the non-Russian Soviet units would defect and refuse to fight when the first bullets were fired. It was all very confusing and, in retrospect, downright amusing given the extremes. We assumed then, as we do now, that reality was somewhere in between those opposite poles.

When it comes to the transition from military to civilian careers, the messages for veterans today are equally bipolar, exaggerated and inaccurate. A dispassionate observer might think that we have gone mad as a society when we cannot decide whether our veterans are losers or heroes. Hollywood and the media would have us believe that our streets are teaming with roaming zombie-like hordes of chronically unemployable veterans. Rendered incapable by PTS and distracted by daily thoughts of depression, these veterans are thought to only be employable by the good faith and charity of philanthropic and patriotic corporate initiatives like the Veterans Jobs Mission or the hundreds of variants on "hiring heroes."

At the other extreme, transition classes and word of mouth scuttlebutt can paint a scenario where companies are lined up outside of base gates eager to provide above-market compensation and opulent risk-free training programs to transitioning service members of all skills, abilities and motivations. So the ambitious and determined veteran career seeker should be forgiven if he or she is confused.

The indisputable fact is that veterans are America's best talent. Companies are indeed waking up to the reality that they need to compete to attract and retain the highest quality veteran talent. Barriers and misinformation remain and it is up to the veteran to directly contradict these myths by word and deed.

You Probably Aren't a Hero

Are you as an honorable veteran worthy of respect and admiration for your service, competence and dedication? Of course! Are you a hero? Maybe; but probably not. Besides, that label will not help drive civilian success. If we use the word hero for every veteran, we lose the ability to describe those who achieve or sacrifice on the highest level. All veterans need to be proud of honorable service but most of us do not rise to the level of "hero." In addition to being sloppy use of language, by overusing the term we risk pushing our veterans into the zone of entitlement.

Entitlement is the next most debilitating career search expectation after defeatism. Janet Jackson's apposite lyric, "What have you done for me lately?" is the name of the game in the civilian world. Can you make, sell or count stuff to create more value than you are paid? These are the key questions that employers will ask. Claiming or not dismissing the title of "hero" will do little to address these issues and will lull the veteran job seeker into inactivity if taken too seriously.

But You Are a Winner

In government and the non-profit sectors, the way that resources are marshalled is through the definition of a problem. Because of this simple law of political economics, there are many entities whose continued existence depend on the perpetuation of the veterans-as-victims narrative. This is not to dismiss the good intentions of most of these organizations nor the true need for certain individuals. Most care deeply about our veterans' well-being. But you, the individual veteran, cannot accept or dwell on such negativity.

No private employer will long survive by hiring low quality employees. Instead, the winning organizations will seek the best talent. That is where the true value of veterans comes to the fore. No other surviving part of our society teaches accountability and performance like the military. Your veteran status says something significant about you. First, you volunteered. You ran to the sound of the guns when most others chose to ignore the call. Then, because of your uniformed experiences, you became a better and more employable individual. Companies and other organizations will be lucky to have you on their teams.

Job seeking is a rollercoaster of emotions and experiences in the best of times. Don't compound the experience by listening to the voices at each of your ears. The angel who tells you that it will all be puppies and rainbows on the way to your dream job or the devil who whispers thoughts of defeatism and despair. They are both wrong. It will be hard and arduous work, but if you know yourself and what you plan to accomplish, you will achieve your career goals.

Be the winner that you are.

Peter A. Gudmundsson is a former US Marine artillery officer and is the CEO of RecruitMilitary, a leading provider of veteran hiring solutions. He may be reached at @PAGudmundsson.

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