Finding employment is among the most common stressors for service members transitioning to civilian life from the military.
That process is often further complicated by the stigma that surrounds service members dealing with combat-related behavioral health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
“There’s a misconception that every veteran who comes back is broken,” said Kate Hatten, executive director of Peak Military Care Network. “Even if people have challenges or barriers, that doesn’t make them not a good employee.”
Indeed, the value that veterans and their spouses can bring to the workplace in terms of loyalty, dedication and punctuality will usually far outstrip any challenges, said Bob McLaughlin, chief operating officer of Mt. Carmel Veterans Service Center in Colorado Springs.
“Most service members come with leadership skills and they want to make an impact in the community,” McLaughlin said. “I think sometimes there is a stigma out there when employers think that somebody may be not be able to transition appropriately, but from our experiences, most of our clients are willing and able to get back out there and do good things for the community. …
“What we like to say is that their military experience makes them a better employee, not a weaker one, even if they are dealing with combat stress.”
BUILDING A COMMUNITY
When dealing with behavioral health challenges that stem from combat-related stress, having comprehensive services is key, McLaughlin said.
“If somebody is struggling with any kind of behavioral health challenge, what we want to do is make sure they get their challenges dealt with through counseling and alternative therapies, so that anybody who has experienced combat trauma has the opportunity to get cared for and be productive members of society,” he said. “So we try to be holistic about it.”
“Holistic” is a word that often surfaces in conversations about veteran employment, particularly those with combat-related stresses.
“It’s a matter of feeling supported, and of honoring that service and making sure people feel connected and part of the community,” Hatten said. “We hear a lot of people say they feel like they lost their family when they got out of the military. Knowing they have another family in the community is something that’s important.”
That’s where organizations like PMCN come in, Hatten said. The nonprofit organization works with 48 partner agencies, as well as the area’s military installations and the Department of Veterans Affairs, to connect service members with resources in the Pikes Peak region.
“We have people who reach out for assistance and have no idea where to start,” Hatten said. “What we help do is connect the dots.”
Mt. Carmel is one of those 48 partner agencies. The nonprofit organization provides transition and employment assistance, behavioral health and wellness supportive services, connection to community resources, and safe event space for veterans, military members and their families, according to its website.
“We want to make sure the veteran is job ready, and help them work through any challenges to become job ready,” McLaughlin said.
The Pikes Peak Workforce Center, which partners with both Mt. Carmel and PMCN, has nine staff members dedicated to assist veterans, transitioning service members and their spouses in finding employment or career pathways, said Traci Marques, PPWFC executive director.
Those staffers’ duties include providing training assistance for service members to “re-skill” if needed and help them find a sustainable wage, Marques said.
“You look at transferable skill sets — how does something they learned in the military transfer in the civilian world?” Marques said. “That could be additional certifications that they may need, or just saying, ‘How can I transfer skills I learned in the military to local companies?’
“We help journey with them and find wraparound services. All of us work together to really have a holistic approach in serving our military community.”
PPWFC also works with organizations such as Operation TBI Freedom, a privately funded program of Craig Hospital that provides support for veterans and active-duty military personnel with traumatic brain injuries, Marques said.
Such partnerships are essential when meeting the employment needs of local veterans and their employers, she said.
Marques said it’s important for employees to have access to resources that can help if challenges arise.
“There are a lot of community resources that are available to help an employer,” she added.
“We are not the only answer. We are just one spoke in a wheel that surrounds the military community… and we want to make sure that we’re able to help connect them with the right organization. It’s not about the Workforce Center. It’s about what’s best for our community.”
Veterans’ needs are multifaceted, making it all the more crucial to connect them and their employers with someone who is “culturally competent,” Hatten said.
“Empowering [employers] to know how to connect to those resources is a great way [to help veterans],” she said. “This community has so much to offer and so much to be able to wrap our arms around individuals and families and make sure people know how to access those services.”
FOCUS ON THE PERSON
From the cybertech industry to the business of government contracts, veterans are making an impact in workplaces everywhere, McLaughlin said — largely due to the leadership experiences and other skills they honed during their service.
“Normally, when you’re dealing with people who have served, they’re eager. They want to be part of a team, they want to make a contribution, because what they’ve learned in the military is all skills about teamwork and giving,” McLaughlin said. “Everyone who came from the military volunteered once to do something important, and mainly they want to be part of something, they want to make a contribution, and they’re reliable.”
A 2015 survey conducted by the research think tank Center for Talent Innovation revealed that roughly half of the sample of more than 1,000 veterans said their colleagues had made false assumptions about them, The Washington Post reported in November 2015.
More than a quarter tried to downplay their military experience in the workplace, and nearly a third of those with a service-related injury or disability hid it from their colleagues, according to the Post.
When interviewing a veteran, employers “have got to deal with the person you see in front of you,” McLaughlin said, rather than relying on preconceived notions about service members.
“You get the resumé, you do the interview, you make a decision based on who you see and how they present themselves,” he said. “That is the most important thing.”
As reported on Military.com, Starbucks advises civilians to “get to know [a veteran] and take it slowly, just like you would with anyone else. Ask questions about who they are, where they’re from and what they like to do.”
“People need to understand that whatever somebody’s challenges are, as long as they’re given an opportunity to capitalize on the strengths they’ve learned in the military, they’re all pretty effective in the workplace,” McLaughlin said. “If employers know that they have a veteran who may have a challenge, it’s the same with people in any walk of life — it’s about dealing with the person holistically.”