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Vets Lost in Translation: From the Battlefield to the Office

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Follow Marine veteran Matthew Litton as he hunts for work at a RecruitMilitary job fair in Philadelphia.

Picture a young man who joined the military shortly after high school. As an infantryman, he shipped out several times over the past decade to a faraway country (sometimes to more than one) where for months at a time he lived in semi-squalor, walked up and over mountains again and again, negotiated complex agreements with local leaders and led operations to build streets, sewers and schools. And with alarming frequency, he did this while people were shooting at him or trying their best to blow him to smithereens.

After some time, he was put in charge of as many as a dozen troops. Then, in addition to accomplishing the hundreds of tasks that made up the mission, his job was also to keep his buddies alive. After four years or more, he left the military to rejoin the civilian world. Today he finds himself in the human-resources office of a company like IBM or Delta or Disney, and a recruiter asks him, “Tell me about a team you’ve led. Describe a project you initiated and completed. What would you say is your greatest weakness?”

The first question throws him for a loop — does a rifle squad count as a team? And projects, well, there were hundreds, including everything from monthly weapons inventories to organizing multilayered combat operations. Which one should he try to explain to the civilian on the other side of the desk? Throughout the entire interview, there’s a nagging question in the veteran’s mind: What does a former infantryman whose past job description was to “close with the enemy by means of fire and maneuver to defeat or capture him” have to offer Disney?

It turns out, quite a bit. Looking for someone with a collaborative working style? How about someone who lived, ate, slept and fought with a squad for months at a time. Need a manager with strong leadership and management skills? Try someone who planned and led combat patrols in a hostile city with limited resources under constant threat. Does the company need someone who is action-oriented, with a high standard for quality and performance? There’s a saying in the Army: They are all no-fail missions.

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But translating those values to corporate America is harder than it seems. To begin with, the military has its own language that works remarkably well on the battlefield but baffles most civilians. “You have people talking two different languages, and you need a translator in between,” says Paul Rieckhoff, who led an infantry platoon in Baghdad before founding Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). “A veteran doesn’t know how to talk to the companies, and the companies don’t know how to talk to the veterans, and neither one knows how to find each other in a constructive matching mechanism.”

Finding that translator and creating those mechanisms is now an urgent mission. According to the latest labor statistics, unemployment among veterans who served after 2001 was 12.7% in May, a big jump from the 9.2% in April and well above the national average of 8.2%. But as Rieckhoff points out, without a major push, that number will get much worse: as the war in Afghanistan ends and the military downsizes, tens of thousands of veterans will enter an already anemic job market.

Clearing the way for returning vets to enter the workforce is a national issue that goes beyond the interests of the 1.6 million veterans of recent wars who have left the military. A veteran who leaves the service without a job is far more likely to end up homeless; if he is unemployed, his health care will come solely from the VA, which is already overstretched. The bottom line economically is that unemployed vets cost the taxpayers a great deal of money; the bottom line morally is that veterans have given years of their lives in service to their country and at the very least deserve to make a civilian life for themselves. So before the crisis becomes a calamity, players on all sides are trying to help vets overcome the crippling language barrier that often holds them back.

The federal government is stepping in with new initiatives to reduce the debilitating financial and psychological effects of joblessness among vets. In addition to a federal program offering subsidies to companies who employ vets, President Obama announced on May 31 a partnership with the Manufacturing Skills Standards Council to allow troops to get industry-recognized credentials on the basis of their military training and experience. “If you can save a life on the battlefield, you can save a life in an ambulance,” Obama said. “If you can maintain the most advanced weapons in the world … well, you can manufacture the next generation of technology in our factories.”

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Ironically, the toughest people to convince that military skills translate to corporations can be the vets themselves. “The immediate thing people say is, I drive a tank. There’s no tanks in corporate America,” says Kevin Preston, Disney’s director of human resources — Veterans Initiative. “You’re right, but every organization, every corporation has leadership roles. There are directly transferrable skills right out of the military, right to the corporate side.”

Organizations like IAVA and companies like Disney are trying to help bridge the communications gap with workshops that help vets adapt their résumés to reflect the universally valuable skills they acquired in the military. “What the veterans need to do is take what they’ve done and put it into civilian terms where these companies understand it,” says John Lundberg of RecruitMilitary, a company that matches veterans with businesses looking to hire them. “If I’m a sergeant in an infantry unit, I call tell these folks that I was responsible for 10 individuals and X amount of equipment on a daily basis.”

A retired Army colonel who worked for part of his military career in human resources, Preston acknowledges that veterans aren’t often skilled in the specific tasks of a job and may have trouble with the language of the corporate world. So one of the first steps Disney took was to train 150 recruiters on military culture. Now if a recruiter says to a vet, “Tell me about a team you’ve led,” and gets a blank expression while the veteran tries to figure out what he meant by team, the recruiter won’t write him off. Conversely, if a vet tells the recruiter he served as a squad leader, the recruiter will know that he was in charge of nine junior troops, which in a company would be a good-size team.

Once Disney has hired a vet, there is a training process designed to help with the transition. “We’re looking at veterans as a unique group,” Preston says. “They’re coming to us with a different background — in some cases a different language and a different set of values.” After the initial orientation, the veterans are pulled aside for additional classes on Disney and the corporate culture. In the military, when a service member moves to a new assignment, that person is usually assigned a sponsor to help with the transition. So at Disney, each vet is assigned a sponsor: a veteran who has been at the company for some time and can answer questions and help the vet get on his or her feet.

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A recent study by the Center for a New American Security surveyed 69 companies and found that while translating military experience to the civilian workplace is one of the largest challenges, hiring veterans gives companies employees with proven character, discipline and loyalty. While the public-relations value was one of the benefits of hiring vets, the companies surveyed ranked it last out of 11 benefits to hiring veterans. Dozens of corporations such as Budweiser, IBM, Time Warner and JPMorgan Chase signed on to the 100,000 Jobs Mission, an initiative to hire 100,000 transitioning service members by 2020. Coca-Cola is in the process of rolling out its vets-hiring program, which includes educating its human-resources personnel in military culture, using existing associates who are veterans and looking not just at degrees but at the level of experience and maturity a candidate brings to the table.

“It’s easier to mold a military veteran than it is a college grad,” says Matthew Litton, who served for nine years as a Marine Corps infantry sergeant. “We’ve already been molded once and we know how to follow orders better than someone who hasn’t had to follow orders, literally to life or death.” In many ways, Litton exemplifies the type of veteran who needs companies to give him a chance. Four days after graduating from high school, Litton joined the Marines. He served two tours in Iraq, during which he saw heavy fighting, rose to the rank of staff sergeant and at one point was in charge of more than two dozen Marines.

But Litton has no college experience on his résumé — just a high school diploma and his Marine Corps schools. He suffers from PTSD and physical injuries from his service. That combination has made it hard for him to convince companies that his years of leadership and management experience, both in training and under fire, make him a potential asset.

As this latest generation of veterans has begun to return home, there has been an outpouring of goodwill from much of the American population. But as wonderful as it is to see Americans supporting veterans in spirit — even when there is a chasm between the military, whose members make up less than 1% of the population, and the rest of the country — hiring them is about much more than just doing what’s right by the people who have protected our freedom.

“They are not a charity. They’re an investment,” Rieckhoff says. “Think about these folks as a generation of leaders. They’re a generation of dynamic, innovative, strong, disciplined young men and women, and if we invest in them, they can go on to do great things.” Disney, Coca-Cola and other companies are banking on just that, and if they can succeed in overcoming the communications challenges by the time the war in Afghanistan finally comes to an end, both veterans and the companies who’ve hired them will reap the rewards.

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