Linda Stanley experienced that disconnect firsthand. Her husband was a corpsman on the USS Kitty Hawk near the end of the Vietnam War, helping to treat badly wounded pilots and other troops. Back home, he couldn’t get a job as an emergency medical technician or ambulance driver. Stanley, who served 21 years in the military herself, believes that many employers still don’t understand exactly what returning veterans can offer them.
“They didn’t look at all of his training from the Navy and say, ‘Yes, you qualify for a civilian job,’ ” she says. “And that’s the same thing that happens now.”
Maddox ran into the same problem when he came home after his second Iraq tour (he also served there in 2004, working in a mortuary-affairs unit). During his stint in Ramadi, he worked in a civil-affairs unit, helping to conceive, manage, and fund small-scale construction and infrastructure projects. When Maddox looked for similar jobs in the civilian world, ideally at nongovernmental organizations, he was told that he would need a master’s degree to even be considered for such a position.
“I didn’t have the piece of paper, so the fact that I’d already been literally doing that job really didn’t matter,” he says. “Military experience really doesn’t count for anything when they’re looking at your résumé.”
The staggering unemployment rate for returning troops has finally drawn the attention of corporate America and the White House. Amazon.com, for instance, has hired veterans for about a quarter of the jobs at its order-filling centers, according to a recent article in Fortune. In a symbolic gesture, Amazon has created a commemorative coin, modeled on those given out by military commanders, which features the logos of the five military services on one side and its corporate logo on the other. The conference rooms at one facility in Phoenix have names like Mess Hall and Bunker. In a more substantive move, the company is considering a new effort to hire disabled veterans as “virtual” customer-service representatives, according to the article.
“We actively seek leaders who can invent, think big, have a bias for action, and deliver results on behalf of our customers,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told the magazine. “These principles look very familiar to men and women who have served our country in the armed forces, and we find that their experience leading people is invaluable.”
G.I. Jobs magazine has spent the past decade ranking companies on how well they recruit and retain veterans. Amazon occupied the top spot this year. Managing Editor Dean Fazio said he wished more companies appreciated just how much veterans could bring to private-sector companies.
“Veterans benefit from the best training in the world and have been responsible for other people’s lives and millions of dollars’ worth of equipment in harsh environments. They have learned to make hard decisions and adapt quickly when the plan goes awry,” he says. “How could that not be valuable to corporate America?”
The Obama administration has teamed with the private sector on an initiative called “Joining Forces,” which seeks to find at least 15,000 jobs for veterans in coming years. Last month on The Colbert Report, host Stephen Colbert joked with President Obama that private companies should hire a veteran because “with the stories he tells of his previous job, it will really make the interoffice complaining sound trivial.” Obama replied that it would definitely be “hard to be a whiner around a veteran.”
Veterans already get preferential treatment when they apply for federal jobs ranging from park rangers to Defense Department contracting personnel. But government jobs are drying up as the administration’s economic stimulus winds down and the Republicans in Congress push for far-ranging austerity measures designed to close the nation’s yawning budget deficit.
Sutherland, who retired from the military to focus solely on helping veterans find employment, is hoping to work around the government’s hiring slowdown. During his time on the Joint Chiefs staff, the Iraq veteran visited more than 329 cities and towns in 42 states. He now wants to build local organizations in hundreds of communities to make it easier for veterans to find jobs and reacclimate to civilian life. Some of these initiatives are led by churches or schools; in Boise, Idaho, the police department is taking the lead role.
Sutherland also wants to team with Easter Seals, which has more than 500 affiliates nationwide working to help returning troops find their way into civilian jobs. He says he is encouraged by the way colleges and universities are joining the fight; Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management sponsored a weeklong “Entrepreneurship Boot Camp for Veterans With Disabilities,” and Vassar College became the first school in the country to partner with a foundation dedicated to offering small numbers of returning troops full scholarships to highly selective, highly expensive universities.
“Veterans don’t need a handout or pity,” he says. “They need a hand up and a start.”
Maddox, for his part, has found a part-time job at Palomar Community College in San Marcos, Calif., helping to ensure that the 1,100 veterans enrolled there stick to their courses and make progress toward their degrees. “It’s $13 an hour, 20 hours a week, so it’s not much,” he says. “But it’s a start.”
This article appears in the May 26, 2012, edition of National Journal.