Why This Is the Biggest Obstacle to Veteran Employment

Andrew Garcia, the warehouse manager at Anheuser-Busch Hawaii, works with Career Skills Program soldiers who are transitioning out of the military.
Andrew Garcia, the warehouse manager at Anheuser-Busch Hawaii, works with Career Skills Program soldiers who are transitioning out of the military. (Staff Sgt. Melissa Parrish/U.S. Army photo)

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.

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

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 after his military service and received treatment through the Veterans Treatment Court. He now works with vets on addressing their mental health and improving their mental competence.

Gonzales said 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," Gonzalez said. "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 hire because of 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.

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

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 into how they were part of a dynamic team. This helps the interviewer put that kind of experience into a civilian context.

But all the give can't come from the service member. "We have to understand them," Casey said. "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 post-traumatic stress disorder, 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 both military and civilian life is key 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.

Keep Up with the Ins and Outs of Military Life

For the latest military news and tips on military family benefits and more, subscribe to Military.com and have the information you need delivered directly to your inbox.

Story Continues