The United States has arrived at a cultural moment when veterans' affairs are once again in the spotlight. There's an ongoing debate about whether NFL protests are disrespectful to veterans and soldiers; Ken Burn's excellent documentary about the Vietnam War has Americans thinking anew about the returnees from that war; and a major motion picture, Thank You For Your Service, will examine the experience of Iraq war vets and their families. With Veterans Day just around the corner, this is a good time to reaffirm our continuing commitment to veterans, and to discuss some of their workplace experiences.
Let's Talk About Talking
Most Americans do not personally know a vet. Less than one-half of 1% of all Americans have served in the military over the last decade. So, many find the topic of war awkward. Wes Moore, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, talked about that difficulty in a powerful TED Talk from 2014 (see below). "I remember when I came back, I wanted to talk to people about my experiences," he said. "I wanted people to ask, 'What did you do? What was it like? What was the food like? What was the experience like? How are you doing?' And the only question I got from people was, 'Did you shoot anybody?' And those were the only ones even curious enough to say anything."
Those of us who have not been in the military naturally wonder if what we see and hear in the movies or on television reflects reality. Often it does not, and the truth may be difficult to talk about. This point was evident in a survey by the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) in which some 1,022 full-time working veterans were asked to comment on their workplace experience. Roughly half of the respondents said colleagues tended to make false assumptions about them, such as their political views, or ask questions that were awkward or made them uncomfortable.
It can be a delicate subject, but that doesn't mean friendly inquiries should be avoided altogether. Says Moore, "The notion that we might say the wrong thing often cows people into silence, but that can be harmful, too. Then it feels like your service was not even acknowledged, like no one even cared." Bottom line: Take your cues from the veteran. Not every vet is the same, and some will invite discussion and some won't. But to honor their service, don't be afraid to ask.
The Wounds That Are Not Visible
Another issue in the workplace can be post-traumatic stress. Managing a condition at work such as PTSD---a disorder characterized by an inability to recover after experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event---can be overwhelming if those around you do not understand its cause and the symptoms. In addition to managing the day-to-day stress of work and family life, there may be additional concerns that are not apparent to coworkers and supervisors. The vet may not know how to address remarks from others or how to handle people who do not appear to understand or believe that he or she has a disability.
Additionally, a vet may be coming to terms with the impact that military life has had on his or her career: from missed opportunities while serving, to questions about their ability to handle the workload. But according to the CTI survey, many veterans feel under-utilized, having developed multiple skills in the military that are not used in corporate life. The Veterans Administration has emphasized the importance of asking veterans if there are any accommodations they might need to be comfortable and increase their productivity. They stress that it is important to remind veterans that accommodations are made available for many employees in very differing situations, and that their's is not considered special treatment, but a practical way to insure that everyone can work at his or her highest level.
The key point to keep in mind is that veterans want to feel comfortable in the work environment they are in. This requires the vet and colleagues alike to educate themselves and others about what is needed and a willingness to advocate for redress when a need has been overlooked.
Written by Greg Kelly.