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Hire a Vet? Don't Do Him Any Favors!

by David A. Sodamann
[Wall Street Journal (14 July 1986)]

As a newspaper editor and frequent reader, I see hundreds of headlines daily. Most are just headlines, nothing special. But I glanced at one recently in a big-city business publication that really ticked me off.

"Need an ideal worker? Then try hiring a veteran," the irksome headline read. My thoughts in response were not the kind of thing a "polite" publication should print.

I am a veteran — and darned proud of it. I've never been ashamed to admit it. I served four years in the Army infantry, reaching the rank of captain before the war business went bust and I was laid off. I served three more years in the Army Reserve, until a budget cutter's ambush wiped out the company I commanded.

But when I see headlines or hear broadcast reports advocating the hiring of veterans, I often find myself wishing I had never put on the Army green. Because being an "employed" veteran has been for me a kind of hell. The headlines and reports are just salt in the wounds.

I've got a feeling there are many others out there just like me. And, in some ways, we might be better off unemployed.

Let me share some of my own experiences with you, and you'll understand why.

I pinned on lieutenant's bars when I was 19 years old. At that time, I was given responsibilities that would curdle the blood of many civilian business people — these were life-and-death decisions.

When 21 years old, just before being promoted to captain, I was given responsibility for a sensitive project. One of the first things I did after assuming the duty was to decode a classified message addressed to me. I almost fell out of my chair when I finished deciphering the first line. It said: "Directed by the President."

By the time I was 26, I was an oil-field roustabout earning a bit more than minimum wage. The toughest decision I ever had to make was whether to use a 24-inch pipe wrench or a 36-inch pipe wrench to screw together two pieces of line. I didn't have any responsibility.

Now, here I am 37 years old, and the boss's secretary won't even give me the time of day. Sure, I'm a veteran with a job, but am I really better off?

As a 22-year-old company commander, I had responsibility for upwards of 200 men. At 23, I was selected over many more senior officers to serve as a battalion commander in training exercises at the Infantry School. I had, in theory anyway, control of 700 or 800 men, their helicopters and all kinds of firepower as we fought an enemy armed with tactical nuclear weapons — again, this was just training, but we were training for the real thing.

Now I have only three other people to worry about, but that's about all I can do — worry. I have no real authority. A whole bunch of other people, it seems, make all the "important" decisions for me.

The article beneath that irksome headline said veterans have "job-skills-plus." Things like: "Knowing how to work in demanding environments."

We do. But in civilian life we must endure people who can't.

"Being team-players."

We are. But teamwork and comradeship are traits foreign to yuppies and others dedicated to looking out for number one.

"Having flexibility."

We do. But I've noticed civilian employers usually don't.

"Being loyal."

We can be. But loyalty is a two-way street. Truly "businesslike" employers don't seem to understand that. There are many more traits that can be added to the list. And, yes, veterans do have job-skills-plus. However, it has been my experience, and other veterans tell me it is their experience as well, that civilian employers don't really appreciate what veterans have to offer.

A lot of us who are veterans, as a result, wind up feeling like square pegs in round holes. I know I have. Indeed, we sometimes find ourselves overwhelmed with the confusion and frustration that comes from working for employers who not only do not appreciate the skills we bring to the workplace, but who also deny the validity of our experience and training, going so far as to sometimes ridicule us.

I've had about 15 years to adjust to the "real world." I think I'm finally starting to get the hang of it. I don't find being an underemployed civilian as frustrating as I once did, and that's only because I've applied another skill I learned in the Army: I've gotten in step — mostly I mark time, but at least I'm in step.

Why should I care if my talents have been wasted? It hasn't cost me much; it's the employers who have failed to get the most for their money.

I'm speaking from experience. My experiences are, I admit, both narrow and extreme. Other veterans may have had, I hope, an easier time of it than I. But perhaps because my experience has been so intense, I can focus a brighter light into a dark area many of us who are veterans have had to brave. And, as a result, I can give business people some sound advice:

If you need an ideal employee, then try hiring a veteran. But don't think just because you hire a veteran, you've done him, or yourself, a big favor. Hiring a vet isn't like rescuing a dog from the pound.

If you're not wholeheartedly prepared to take advantage of what a veteran has to offer, then get yourself a yuppie instead. Leave the veteran in the unemployment line. It could be the most merciful thing you'll ever do.