Wall Between Civilians, Vets Biggest Obstacle to Employment


Is calling your civilian boss "sir" all the time a mark of PTSD? Of course not. But that real-life question demonstrates the current civilian/military divide faced by veterans with their new employers.

At the 2014 Warrior-Family Symposium, co-sponsored by the Military Officers Association of America and the National Defense Industrial Association and held this week in Washington, D.C., panelists addressed the needs of currently serving troops, family members and caregivers as they transition forward into civilian life.

One of the biggest problems mentioned throughout panels about employment, mental health and transition was the persistent civilian/military divide.

Panelists noted that some of the divide comes from civilians and some comes from military members themselves.

Veterans share responsibility for the divide

Retired Marine Cpl. Eric Gonzales got in trouble with the law following his military service and ended up getting treatment through the Veteran's Treatment Court. He now works with vets on increasing their mental health and mental competence.

Gonzales said that veterans are partly responsible for the divide. "I can't say: 'I'm a vet. You're a civilian. You can't understand me.' Then I've built my own wall," said Gonzalez. "We've got to get rid of that boundary."

Awkward civilian moments

Wanting to be rid of the boundary and actually getting rid of it are two different things.

Maureen Casey, managing director of Military and Veterans Affairs for JPMorgan Chase, oversees the 100,000 Jobs Mission. She works with 169 companies in the program that have aggressive internal hiring programs to fit veterans into the right jobs.

Yet even with motivated employers, there are sometimes problems getting up to speed with a new military hiree due to differences between military culture and civilian culture

"There is a fear of asking the wrong question [about the military]," Casey said. "So people ask nothing."

That leads to awkward moments at work. Casey offered the example of the manager who was worried that his new veteran employee might have PTSD because the employee called him "sir" all the time.

That practice didn't exactly fit in with the corporate culture. And calling the boss "sir" is so automatic for military members that it probably didn't even register with the veteran that he was making his new boss uncomfortable.

Solving cultural differences

Panelist Stacy Vasquez, director of Interagency Strategic Partnerships for the Department of Veterans Affairs, noted that even during the interview process, cultural differences between veterans and civilians come up.

For example, the interview is a " me" opportunity not a "we" opportunity. Applicants are expected to talk about themselves and their own accomplishments. That can be difficult for military members.

Casey agreed. "Military members are not used to talking about themselves as individuals."

Instead, military members are much more used to the "we" mentality in military culture. The work is accomplished by the team or the unit, not the individual. It is considered bad form to take credit for what the unit has accomplished.

Vasquez said that part of the training on the military side of the house must teach new veterans how to talk about themselves as individual workers and tie that in to how they were part of a dynamic team. This helps the interviewer put that kind of experience into civilian context.

But all the give can't come from the service member. "We have to understand them," said Casey. "There are a lot more of us [civilians] who need that education and training."

The complication of PTSD assumptions

During the conference, it was suggested that one of the biggest obstacles to transition is an underlying belief in the civilian world that everyone who ever served in the military has PTSD, that PTSD only happens to military members, and that PTSD can never be cured, changed or managed.

None of those beliefs is true, but civilian employers often don't have the training to know that.

"We need robust training programs," Vasquez said. She suggested that working with human resources managers is one of the first steps to a smooth veteran transition because that HR manager is the first line that a veteran must cross to make it into the corporate world.

Demystifying military life and demystifying civilian life are both keys to an optimal transition. Effective training and thoughtful changes will need to come from both sides to help the veterans, families and caregivers of today's military.

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