When U.S. soldiers returned from the Vietnam War, many never got the welcome they felt they deserved. Instead of parades, many got sneers and lectures. Since the Iraq and Afghan wars began, Americans have responded much better to veterans returning from U.S. missions abroad. We throw parades. We wrap our arms around them.
Then we forget about them as they try to enter the civilian workforce, typically with less success than counterparts who have never enlisted.
A recent survey for the Department of Veterans Affairs found that 18 percent of vets recently back from tours of duty are out of work -- and a quarter of those with jobs earn less than $21,840 per year. In the first two years after leaving military service, the official unemployment rate for veterans was 9.5 percent -- more than double the 4.3 percent rate for a group of demographically similar non-vets.
Ken Crawford, who tries to place veterans with jobs for the San Francisco veterans group Swords to Plowshares, told me it is "very rare" that he places a vet in a job that pays health benefits, much less offers a 401(k) plan. Men and women whom this country recently trusted to command others and represent America abroad now are flipping burgers and delivering pizza.
"A veteran should not go from saying, 'Sir, yes, sir,' to, 'Do you want fries with that?' or 'Would you like to supersize that order?'" Crawford added.
The problem isn't simple. Crawford believes that the military often does not develop skill sets that translate easily into the civilian job market, although the VA survey reported that many veterans have developed valuable technological skills.
There can be emotional issues -- which do not all fall under the rubric of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Some vets have trouble adjusting from the military regimen to workplace sensibilities.
Walter L. Williams, 33, now a case manager for Swords to Plowshares, recalls returning from tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait and spending 10 months on other people's couches. He had to learn how to fit himself into the routines of others -- as well as establish his own routine.
PTSD has turned into a two-edged sword. Advocates' focus on the trauma has delivered funds and programs to help shell-shocked vets. Yet the price is that this focus has undermined the image of men and women who served their country and are perfectly capable of holding down a good job -- but they have to be hired first.
Common sense would suggest that corporate human resource staffers would want to hire adults who could be counted on in the most trying of circumstances. And veterans have a history of putting a mission first. But, Crawford suspects, corporate HR-types note the veterans' box checked off on an online application, and see damaged goods. Service in the military is seen as a negative, not a plus. Businesses also are afraid that a newly returned vet might be called back into service. The VA survey found a 10-point drop in the percentage of employed recently-returned veterans who work for private companies since 1990.
"If I were an employer and I wasn't a vet and I was misinformed, I probably wouldn't hire a vet either," said Williams. In the Bay Area, critics of the Iraq War often say that they oppose the war, but support the troops. That's not what Williams sees. He sees people who look down on those who have served in the military.
Williams is baffled at what he sees as an odd sense of entitlement. How can it be that he has served their country, yet non-vets see themselves as somehow better than he is?
And guess what: Because, according to the survey, non-vets are more likely to earn more than new vets, their sense of entitlement pays off.
Who hires veterans? In Crawford's experience, the answer is: veterans. Otherwise, hiring vets is not on the radar for many human resources departments.
Williams, who is black, recalls serving with men whom he believed to be bigots -- but he knew they would have his back. And they knew they could depend on him.
For those who see the Bay Area as tolerant and embracing, Williams uttered words to think about: "The civilian world, to me, is a lot colder than the military world."