Helping Recent Vets Find Meaning In New Jobs
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
When former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens returned to civilian life, he heard his fellow veterans asked the same question over and over: What do I do now? Part of the problem is the economy. Veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq face unemployment rates even higher than that in the general population. Part of it's mutual incomprehension. Vets say employers don't understand how the skills they learned in the military can translate.
Employers say many vets don't know how to sell themselves or make the transition to a different culture. And there's another problem: Where does a vet find the same sense of challenge, the purpose that they had in the military?
We want to hear from those of you who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and have found a job. What surprised you about the transition? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You could also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, memories of reluctant hero Neal Armstrong. You can email us your Neal Armstrong stories. Now, the address again is firstname.lastname@example.org.
But first, Eric Greitens joins us from the studios of St. Louis Public Radio. He's the founder of the nonprofit The Mission Continues, and the author of several books, including "The Heart and the Fist." And it's nice to have you with us today.
ERIC GREITENS: Neal, it is a pleasure to be on with you.
CONAN: And the title of the nonprofit, The Mission Continues, that tells us something about what you're trying to do.
GREITENS: Absolutely it does. What we're trying to do, Neal, is bring back this generation of veterans who served in Iraq, they've served in Afghanistan, they've served in other theaters of the global war on terrorism.
And what we want them to do is they come back home and find a way to use all of those skill sets, everything that they learned and bring that back home so that they can continue a mission of public service here at home, so they can reintegrate successfully and become real citizen leaders again here at home.
CONAN: A mission of public service.
GREITENS: Exactly. What we found with this generation of veterans, Neal, is that 92 percent of them - 92 percent - say that serving their communities is very important to them. And so, when they come home they're not just looking for a job, they're not even just looking for a career, they're looking, as they transition from a fantastic team, from an incredible mission, they're looking to come back home and find a way to rebuild that sense of purpose here at home.
CONAN: I wonder, your organization's been around for a few years now. Stories that stick out?
GREITENS: You know, we've been around for five years now, Neal, and it's been incredible to see how all of these men and women come back. I think of Tim Smith, one of our first veterans here who became a Mission Continues fellow in St. Louis, Missouri. Tim Smith served for several years in the United States Army, served with the 4th Infantry Division in Iraq. Had a rough deployment when he was over there, Neal; saw eight of his friends killed one day. Other friends came off the battlefield wounded and disables.
And when Tim came home he would tell you that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, he was waking up every night looking for his rifle underneath his bed, having some trouble relating to his wife and his young son.
When I first talked with Tim he was working the midnight shift at the post office in downtown St. Louis, doing the best he could to support his family, but he really said to me, he said I'm trying to find a way to rebuild my life here.
And what he did was he ultimately did, did a fellowship through our program at the VA where he served as a peer support counselor. He reconnected to his sense of mission, went back to school, ended up getting a master's degree in social work, was hired full-time by the VA and now he's set up his own business, Patriot Commercial Cleaning, a commercial cleaning business here in St. Louis, where he actually hires other veterans.
He's an incredible example of success because he reconnected to this sense of purpose, reconnected to this sense of mission, and he's now really leading in the community.
CONAN: We want to hear from those of you who've been in Iraq or Afghanistan, came back and found a job. Tell us about the transition and what surprised you. 800-989-8255, email email@example.com. And we'll start with Vincent, and Vincent's with us from Napa in California.
VINCENT: Hi, yeah. I was a Air Force medic and when I got out I couldn't find work anywhere and my applications were never being returned when I did them by email. I went to job fair and sat in front of like six managers and told them, you know, my qualifications, and they all kind of like frowned, you know, like kind of looked away. And I found that they more nervous that I was going to work outside my scope because they knew that I had, you know, I could start IVs and go well beyond what I - was qualified for, which was really nothing, except a nurse's assistant.
I explained to them that my ambition was to use my GI Bill, go to college and get my Registered Nurse degree. And I could see their ears kind of perking up a little more. I eventually was hired at the Queen of the Valley in Napa. I was there as a nurse's aide for four years; really undersold my qualifications, but, man, when I went to nursing school, it was a piece of cake and, in fact, everyone at school looked to me as the leader because a lot of these skills I already obtained and was able to work.
CONAN: And now that - did you graduate?
VINCENT: I did. I'm working as a Registered Nurse, and interesting, though, when I got into the hospital, I finally got my job, there were only a handful of men working in the hospital at the time and almost every single one of them were ex-military, which had the same experience. And I found, you know, I just had to, you know, accept that I wasn't going to be doing what I did in the military, you know, really taking the lead on things.
CONAN: At least not a first, yeah.
VINCENT: Yeah. An interesting part about The Mission Continues, you guys are saying, was that at the end of the shift we would all work hard as a team, and I would look forward to everybody kind of, you know, punching out and walking out together and talking. And everyone just kind of left and, you know, there wasn't really that sense of team and it didn't feel the same, and I was always looking for that, you know, that camaraderie I used to have, so, I do feel for, you know, and understand definitely that's what's it's like.
CONAN: Yeah, Eric Greitens, I think that's one thing that everybody misses.
GREITENS: Absolutely, Neal. I mean, Vincent's story is almost emblematic of what happens for a lot of this generation of veterans as they come home. One piece is the camaraderie. When they're serving in a place like Iraq or Afghanistan, you have this really tight-knit team and you wake up every singe morning knowing that there are other people who are counting on you, and that you are counting on them.
I mean, you know, Vincent's story is also emblematic. You come back with all of this experience, but you don't necessarily have the certifications that actually translate to employment in the civilian sector. And so, a lot of times when veterans come home they have to find a way to transition so that they can go back to school, get those certifications - perhaps use their GI benefits, in order to obtain the certification that's going to help them to be successful in the way that Vincent is being now.
CONAN: Have you found anything to replace that sense of camaraderie?
VINCENT: Now that I've been there a while, you know, more established friends and, you know, been there a while and I have friends all over the hospital now. My wife works there as a nurse, you know, family. So, I've really, you know, after a long it's taken up to build up that bond, and now I actually feel like I'm working with friend and a group. It's actually a great place to work.
CONAN: Well, congratulations. Thanks very much, Vincent.
VINCENT: Thank you.
CONAN: Let's see if we go next to - this is Jason. Jason with us from Louisville.
JASON: Yes, sir. How you doing?
CONAN: Good. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JASON: Oh yes, sir. I came back from Iraq. My last deployment was 2007, and I came home and I tried to jump right back into civilian life like nothing every happened, and I had all these issues that I hadn't dealt with. And it's taken me five years, you know, to really come around and, you know, I just now regained myself. I just started a job in selling insulation. I just bought a new vehicle. And it's taken me that long to really, you know, get back around, and I owe most to my parents. My mom and dad have been the greatest help for me at all.
CONAN: Well, that's great to have family there, but you talked about issues. Like what?
JASON: Well, you know, I was diagnosed at the VA with PTSD. You know, I had some friends I lost over there and some close calls I had, you know, when I lost my buddies, and, you know, I'm service-connected right now. And, you know, it was just all bad. I thought I could come right home and pick up where I left off, but that just doesn't happen after you go through something like that.
CONAN: Because one of the problems I've - other people have told me is, you know, other people just don't understand what you've been through. It's hard to talk about it.
JASON: Yeah. That - you know, that's true. And I hated that. I have some childhood friends that I've known since - well, I really don't know life without them. And, you know, I've always felt like I can tell them anything. And when I came home from all of that, it was just like - it was like they were strangers. But they supported me through the whole thing, and it was great. John and Chris, you know, they supported me as best they could. And - but, you know, I couldn't tell them everything.
CONAN: No. So how's it working out now?
JASON: You know, I'm doing a lot better. You know, it's taken five years. Like I said, I just got a new job. I'm doing well. And, you know, it's like my life has restarted.
CONAN: Well, thanks very much, and continued good luck.
JASON: All right. Thanks, buddy. Thanks for having me.
CONAN: All right. Bye-bye, Jason.
And, Eric Greitens, as you hear Jason's story, I think it is really hard to make that transition. Of course there's the military culture. You're a little more hierarchal than your average company. There's the question you don't have to worry about, you know, what to put on every morning.
CONAN: But there's - the issues like Vincent was talking about. I mean, this is hard stuff.
GREITENS: It is hard stuff, Neal. And one of the things that we found that's really helpful that Jason spoke about is the need for veterans to also be connected to other veterans who are coming home and who are making successful transitions.
One of the things that we found that's most effective is to actually provide veterans with models, with examples of men and women who might have come back two or three years ahead of them, might have even been from the same unit, or have certainly had the same kinds of challenges as they've come back. And they found a way to deal with physical injuries. They found a way to deal with getting their VA benefits. They found how to deal with their GI Bills, to reestablish a sense of community.
And we really need to put these models of successful veterans out there so that as men and women come home, they both see that example, and they have a peer group of people who they can relate to so that they know that they, too, can be successful in making this transition.
CONAN: But don't also need to reach out to employers?
GREITENS: Absolutely, you have to reach out to employers. And we've actually - we've found a couple of key lessons for ways that employers can be most effective in doing this, Neal. I mean, one of the things that's interesting is that in a recent survey that was done, over 75 percent of employers are specifically targeting veterans. They've actually set up some kind of program to positively reach out for veterans. And yet 80 percent of those employers also identified barriers to hiring veterans. And so those barriers might be that they can't find the veterans, or they're worried about post-traumatic stress disorder, or they find that veterans' skill sets don't transfer.
And one of the things that we found working with different corporate partners like Target, Goldman Sachs, Southwest Airlines, what we find is that the best companies who hire veterans actually have a strong internal culture of veterans. And they use those veterans to do their outreach.
CONAN: We're going to be talking with the military talent attraction manager for AT&T when we come back from a short break, so stay with us. Eric Greitens will stay with us, too. We're talking about some of the hurdles recent veterans face when it comes to getting hired. If you've been to Iraq and Afghanistan and did find a job, what was surprising about the transition? 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.
We're talking with recent veterans about the challenges they face finding a job. TiVo recently announced a new program, the TiVo Summer Veterans Intern Program. It's a paid internship for veterans who've just left the service or just finished school. GE launched its own veterans' network to recruit military men and women. The program sponsors workshops for veterans and helps hiring managers translate military experience into corporate skills.
We'll talk with the military talent attractor - attraction manager for AT&T in just a moment about what the company's doing to better connect with veterans. And we want to hear from those of you who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and did find a job. What surprised you about the transition?
800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guest is Eric Greitens. After serving in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Navy SEAL, he founded The Mission Continues, which is a nonprofit organization that helps returning service members transition to civilian life.
And Chris Norton began working at AT&T in 1999, while he was in the U.S. Army Reserves. He was called for stateside service in 2002, sent to Iraq in 2008. He now serves as AT&T's military talent attraction manager, and joins us by smartphone from his office in East Windsor, New Jersey.
Nice to have you with us today.
CHRIS NORTON: Hey, Neal. Thanks for having me. Great to be here.
CONAN: So you've gone back and forth between the military and the corporate worlds. Was it still hard, even after that, to transition back to civilian life?
NORTON: You know what? A couple of people mentioned - a couple callers, and Eric certainly did, as well - you know, there's a cultural difference that certainly comes into play. And, you know, I've had to make that change a couple times. And frankly, I do it after each drill weekend, I have to do a small adjustment, simply because it's that much of a culture change.
But, you know, I had to reintegrate in 2004 - actually, five, after I returned from that initial stateside tour. You know, again, it was that adjustment. But it was much more pronounced in 2009 when I got back from my Iraq tour. I think Eric mentioned the connection and the need to be around other vets, and that really was the case for me then. And actually, that need for connectedness got me involved with our employer resource group here at work, and frankly, that led to the job I have now, to be very honest.
CONAN: I can understand that, but what - did corporate life suddenly purposeless in some way?
NORTON: I don't know about purposeless. There's certainly a much clearer sense of direction in the military. Generally, people are more in alignment with goals and objectives. And that's not always as clear in a private-sector setting, certainly.
But understanding that those goals are different than you might find in the military is kind of a watershed moment when you get there. You know, you just have to, again, learn the language, learn the culture and figure out where, ultimately, you're all headed to.
CONAN: Did you have to convince your superiors in the corporate world that they needed such a position?
NORTON: Well, you know, it took a couple of years. You know, one of the roles I had with the employee resource group was to work with our recruiting team on outreach events. So, a couple years back, AT&T decided that, hey, you know what? We're going to make a concerted effort here to reach veterans. We know they're good for business. We understand why.
And initially, we kind of had it kind of lumped in with our other diversity outreach efforts. And what they would do is they would pull in guys like me from the resource group to help, you know, in the translation, if you will, to represent us at career fairs and assist in maybe some policy development. And, you know, kind of the conversation that developed as a result was, hey, listen. You know, we're a great company to work for as a veteran, as a reservist, because there are a lot of cultural similarities. And there's a whole list of other reasons why, you know, why we're a wonderful place to work.
But in order to do it right, you've got to have somebody that can speak the language, that has credibility and, you know, has worn the boots, so to speak. And, you know, they heard that from us for some period of time, and eventually got to the point where they said, you know, we're going to do it. Help us write the job description. And then they pulled a fast one on me and offered me the job.
NORTON: So, you know, here I am, and it's been absolutely wonderful. And it's very similar to my command time in that I feel like I have a calling now, which is great. And it's been some time since I've felt this compelled, with my civilian job, to wake up in the morning and go to work.
CONAN: Eric Greitens, you told us a few minutes ago that sometimes even those companies that do have outreach programs for vets, there are still barriers to hiring vets. How does that work?
GREITENS: There are some barriers to hiring vets, Neal. I mean, one of them is that oftentimes - and Vincent and Jason already mentioned this - is that sometimes it's hard to translate that military skill set to civilian employment.
So, you know, you might have been leading a squad of 12 people in al-Anbar province in Iraq, but how do you translate and make it clear that you can conduct missions, that you can lead and inspire people in difficult situations, that you've got understanding of logistics, that you understand communications? All of that stuff has to be translated in a really crystal clear way so that the civilian employer can look at that resume and then be able to say I see where this person is going to be able to fit in here in my company.
CONAN: And let me ask that same question to you, Chris Norton: Is that a process of educating hiring officials there at AT&T to say, look, look at this resume, and you can see the skills that will actually apply here?
NORTON: Oh, absolutely. You know, so the biggest part of what I do is train other recruiters and hiring managers on what, you know, what the value of veterans in the workforce is. I spend, you know, a good half of my time literally having that type of conversation, going through examples of hey, this is, you know, this what the military is all about. Statistically, it's very unlikely that a recruiter or a hiring manager at this point has any military service themselves.
NORTON: And, you know, as a result, that bridge does need to be made. I do find that it's a huge area of interest within the company right now. You know, people get it. They understand, hey, it's good for business. They just don't necessarily know how to make that connection yet.
And so, you know, we're doing that and other large companies are doing it, you know. It's certainly a bandwidth issue, though. There's no question.
CONAN: A bandwidth issue?
NORTON: Well, you know what's happened in the last, you know, decade or so, is everybody gotten (technical difficulties) doing more with less. And so when you come to, say, a human resources organization, or any - you know, any company that wants to do this outreach, now you've got to find somebody to do it. And so that's a big challenge.
There's a whole list of companies that, you know, have committed to it. They've put fulltime people in the responsibility chain, if you will, for recruiting veterans and doing the internal training, as well as the external outreach. But not everybody can do it.
And I think as more and more businesses start to, you know, make that commitment, you'll see us hit that, you know, kind of mass effect where it happens more and more often.
CONAN: Critical mass.
NORTON: When you get down to it, veterans are great for business.
CONAN: All right. Let's if we can get another one on the phone. This is Corey - excuse me, Cody, and Cody's with us Concord, in New Hampshire.
CODY: Hi. I'm a veteran that got out in 1995. And I was able to find employment, but the barrier that I constantly confront is the differences between corporate culture and the core values of the military. Now, I was in 10 years, and I learned what esprit de corps was, and I learned to protect my team and that I served a part - as part of a unit.
And in the corporate world, it's all about profits and reducing costs, and they don't share the same values that veterans share. And over the years, I still find myself looking for a company that has values that are close to what I had in the military. And I - and many days, I regret even getting out of the service.
CONAN: And what do you do now?
CODY: I'm actually a software engineer.
CONAN: And you would think projects, that sort of thing, and people work in teams on software.
CODY: Yes. I mean, I'm glad to hear about it. I, you know, I'd like to actually get involved with it if I can.
CONAN: Eric Greitens, I think this is a problem that probably is not just Cody's alone.
GREITENS: Absolutely, Neal. But, you know, one of the things that we also know is that just as businesses are reaching out to veterans and they know that there's a business case to made for bringing veterans into their companies, one of things that we also find is that it's important for veterans to actually positively reach out, as well, when they come home.
One of the things that sometimes veterans struggle with is that when they come home, they might not have yet the social network that they're going to need that's going to help them to actually find a quality job. And so we want veterans to come back home, build that social network when they come back, get involved in their communities, become leaders in their communities.
And as they do that, what we find is that they end up building the social network that helps to lead to a job. And we find that when veterans come into their companies, we also want them to bring those military values, bring that sense of esprit de corps, bring that sense of mission and that sense of purpose. And it's one of the reasons why businesses are so eager to hire veterans, because they can bring that home. And so we want to ask veterans as they come back to serve and to lead as well.
CONAN: Cody, good luck to you. Thank you. Here's an email we have from Amber: The transition was indeed very tough. Thanks to the civil service system putting veterans at the top of the list. I'm a firefighter. I thank my lucky stars every day for this job, for this transition into civilian life was so tough. I simply could not relate enough to retail jobs, corporate jobs, et cetera. Being a firefighter is the most purposeful job I could think of, and it certainly makes civilian life worthwhile.
And, Chris Norton, I wonder - I want to have to ask, do sometimes corporate hiring officials view veterans with some skepticism? Are they going to be happy here? Can anything match the kind of - well, that kind of intensity that they've become accustomed to?
NORTON: You know, speaking for us anyway, I don't think you see that. You know, I think you see a, you know, definite understanding that, yeah, there's a cultural change between, you know, between the organizations, if you will. But ultimately, you know, if you've got folks that are drawn to seek employment and a career in the private sector, usually, they kind of get that. It's not, to be honest with you, a concern that that, you know, is there in reality. But to, again, to help mitigate that, you know, there's quite a bit of - not to use the phrase again - bridging, but there's a lot of bridging that needs to be done just so that folks in the private sector do get it.
You know, hey, we're recruiting from a population that is very, very team focused, that is very goal oriented. And, you know, one of the callers earlier mentioned, hey, you know, everything is about, you know, the bottom line or, you know, reducing cost. Well, you know, that's one way to look at it. You know, the other suggestion I might make is, hey, think in terms of, again, goals and objectives. You know, you work as part of a team that, yeah, the bottom line of the company is to, you know, make a profit if you're talking in the private sector - that's the truth - but, you know, individual teams have specific goals.
My career is in customer service, for example. You know, our goal is to provide the best quality of, you know, care to a given product set, you know. And if you focus in on that objective, it changes your perspective considerably, you know, which really - when you get down to, it isn't that different from when you serve in the military. You know, your goal is, you know, hey, here's this particular objective, get it. Your goal might be, you know, protect your buddies, you know, but it's just a change in where that goal set lies. And when you get there, you know, it certainly helps you make that adjustment.
CONAN: Chris Norton is the military talent attraction manager for AT&T. Also with us, Eric Greitens, founder of The Mission Continues, a nonprofit that helps returning service members transition. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And, Eric Greitens, it's, obviously, taking the military - it's very difficult for them to cope with the stigma of PTSD. I wonder, do veterans tell you that they run into hiring officials who are leery of that stigma?
GREITENS: Absolutely, Neal. In fact, it happens quite a bit. You know, one of the things that we did recently was we actually did a poll about the public perceptions of veterans, and this very issue came up, Neal. I mean, what we found was that 86 percent of people had a positive perception of veterans in general, but they tended to vastly overestimate the number of veterans who had post-traumatic stress disorder. The reality is that usually it's less than two in 10 returning veterans who are coming home will have some manifestation of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. And even when they have those symptoms, Neal, it's something that a lot of veterans work through. They overcome, they recover from, and they end up becoming very productive members of society, like Tim Smith who I talked about. So there is sometimes a perception problem when veterans return.
CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Eric, and Eric is with us from East Greenwich in Rhode Island.
ERIC: Hi. How are you?
CONAN: Good. Thanks.
ERIC: Thanks for taking my call.
CONAN: What's up with you?
ERIC: Oh. Recently, I had moved to Rhode Island from Arizona, and coming out here, my first job was with a temp agency, and they put me at a corporation. And originally, you know, I was looking for that same camaraderie like you guys have been talking about, but I think it got me in more trouble looking for that camaraderie in that corporate lifestyle. They weren't used to it. So I wound up making people feel uncomfortable. Then I was out of work for a while, and my friend picked me up and gave me some part-time hours.
But I was able to - it took me about three and a half years, but I was able to translate those extremes and take them - take his business and then manage his business like I had managed in the Marine Corps. And so we used that, and now, as a company, we've doubled our profits this year so far. So that - but it took me a long time to even get to that point.
CONAN: And when you say you made feel uncomfortable in the corporate world, could it be summed up in coming on a little strong?
ERIC: Yeah. Exactly. In the military, you know, the relationships are a lot more intense. These are guys that you fight with, that you serve with, that you live with, that you eat with and you work with. All the time, you see the same faces. So you're - you grow to be more tight-knit. So you don't have that in the civilian section. And the, you know, I was able - I was really fortunate to be able to have an employer that was also my best friend.
CONAN: Yeah. Well, I'm glad it's worked out for you.
ERIC: Well, thank you. Me, too.
CONAN: Appreciate it. Thanks for the call.
ERIC: Thank you.
CONAN: And, Eric Greitens, we just have a few seconds left. But, yes, important to understand, those who came before you have done it and come out the other side.
GREITENS: Absolutely. There are so many veterans who come back and have had successful transitions, Neal. I mean, I think about Hiawatha Clemons, a Marine Corps veteran who's now a successful special education teacher in a middle school. I think about Melissa Steinman, a Coast Guard veteran who came back, who did a successful program as a biology teacher at a mountain wildlife center. Roman Baca who came back - United States Marine Corps veteran who set up a wonderful ballet program in New York City. These are some veterans who came back, and they were able to rebuild this sense of purpose here at home. And if I had one piece of advice for veterans as they come home, it's to get involved in their communities, find ways to serve and to continue that mission.
CONAN: Eric Greitens, thanks very much for your time today.
GREITENS: My pleasure, Neal.
CONAN: Our thanks as well to Chris Norton, the military talent attraction manager at AT&T. Appreciate it.
NORTON: Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: Coming up, we'll remember the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.