EDITOR’S NOTE: Memorial Day is Monday, and though it’s intended to honor those brave service members who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice, there always are legions who come home. When they get back, many find that they are irrevocably changed from their experiences in the military. Invariably, all gave some. Upon return, life isn’t always easy. Civilian life presents a different type of minefield for these veterans to navigate in an all-too-familiar yet alien environment. Finding employment presents a daunting challenge to many discharged veterans. Recently, Derek Kuhn — an Army veteran — was fortunate enough to sit down with a few fellow veterans and pick their brains about adjusting to the civilian work force.
Athens native Dalton Knight shipped out as soon as he could. After graduating high school, the East Texan enlisted in the Marine Corps as an assault amphibious crewman.
During his time in the military, he deployed in 2009 to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. He was honorably discharged as a corporal in 2012. That’s when a whole new challenge for him began.
“When I first got back home after being discharged, I found it challenging at times,” Knight said. “Overall, I think my transition was easier than other vets, but I had times where it was rough for me.”
A recently released report from the U.S. Department of Labor that surveyed 60,000 households showed just how “rough” finding a job could be for the recently discharged.
The survey found the unemployment rates in 2013 for Gulf War-era II (those serving after Sept. 11, 2001, to now) higher than their civilian counterparts. It found that the male veterans unemployment rate was 8.8 percent, which was higher than the rate for male nonveterans
(7.5 percent) in 2013. Additionally, the survey found that the unemployment rate for Gulf War-era II female veterans (9.6 percent) was higher in 2013 than the rate for nonveterans (6.8 percent).
But how were veterans in East Texas coping with the transition from soldier to civilian?
Like Knight, other veterans such as Casey Olson and Gina Howard, echoed his sentiments about the challenges faced when the rifle is placed aside and the real America — not the picturesque flag-waving and white-picket-fence America — is revealed.
A 16-year veteran of the Marine Corps, Olson said that his transition from being a noncommissioned officer to civilian was tough.
“It was an eye-opener going from one culture to another, where emphases on your abilities are light years apart,” the 36-year-old Fargo, N.D., native said. “Where the military looks for certain qualities, the civilian world might not even care because they are looking for something completely different. Much of the time, it’s 100 percent alien, like education. In the Marine Corps, the Marine Corps does its own schooling … but in the civilian side, employers seem more concerned with you having a 10-cent piece of paper with a stamp on it. That kinda’ trumps everything else.”
Olson, who followed his wife to Texas, said finding a job has been difficult for him. He said it seems like the only jobs most people consider veterans for are either police or security guards. The former infantryman has problems with his knees and back stemming from the rigors of five combat tours and training, and said he couldn’t be a police officer because of that. Even if he could, it’s not something he would want to do, he said.
“Someone like me, you get pigeon-holed into either being a cop or security guard, and I didn’t want to do that,” he said. “I could have gone to the police academy, but I started thinking I don’t want to be a cop. I don’t want to do this anymore; I want to do something else. I thought about being a security guard, but, no, it’s the same thing.
“If you’re a cop walking a beat or a security guard patrolling a building, you can’t do that with bad knees and a (bad) back,” he said, as his back was screaming during interview. “Getting a physical job is just out for me — I can’t do it.”
This has presented problems for Olson, and he, like many veterans, has become cynical about finding employment.
“It seems that some companies say they’re vet-friendly, and they employ a few upfront, but it’s just a thing they say,” Olson said.
Former Navy boatswain’s mate Mrs. Howard agreed with Olson’s proclamation.
After getting out of the military in 2012, Mrs. Howard, who like Olson followed her spouse to East Texas, said, “It is extremely frustrating looking for a job. Everyone says they want veterans, but then they never call you,” she said. “I apply at least to five jobs a day. I am always looking for (a job) to pop up. I go to conventions and do everything possible.”
It’s gotten to the point in her job search that Mrs. Howard, 24, said she believes that employers just say they like to hire veterans but rarely follow through on it.
“I feel like everyone is willing to say they hire veterans, but in reality, that’s not true. When I tell them (employers) about my service, they don’t look surprised or say thank you. It is like another answer to their questions they ask you. I would have thought I would have found a good job by now, but I’m still looking,” said the mother of three with another child due in December.
Knight agreed with Mrs. Howard’s assessment of employers.
“It’s hard because — not to sugar-coat anything — but it’s very hard because people say, ‘Having your 214 saying your honorably discharged from the military on your resume goes along way,’” said Knight, who is attending UT Tyler to become a nurse. “People don’t care. They say they care, but they don’t really care that you were in the military. They do it because that’s what’s accepted sociologically.”
Olson, who earned a Navy Commendation Medal with “V” device while in the Marine Corps, whole-heartedly agreed with Mrs. Howard and Knight.
“It seems like a lot of the job opportunities were courtesy interviews just so they can say they support vets,” he said. “You can’t prove anything like that, but that’s the feeling I got. Especially when you get out of an interview, and they thank you for your service, it’s like the kiss of death to me. In my mind I’m thinking they’re like, ‘I look forward to not hearing from you again.’”
Olson likened his search for employment to coping with any sort of loss.
“The stages of grief are absolutely the best way I can describe getting out and trying to find a job,” he said. “You got your denial like, ‘Oh I wasn’t qualified for this job; that’s why I didn’t get it.’ Then you get to anger like, ‘I qualified for all these jobs, and I didn’t get one — what the (heck)?’
“You spend a lot of time in the anger portion of it because for so many years you hear about the intangibles the military gives you like your work ethic, leadership skills and all these other things. We have these and companies supposedly desire these skills, but come to find out they don’t care. They don’t care if you show up 15 minutes prior; they only want you there a minute prior.
“I spent a lot of time in the anger phase just wondering why I wasn’t getting a phone call, because I have all these intangibles. The worst phase was acceptance. I’m not going to get a job; they’re not going to call me back, and that’s when I hit a low point. I stopped looking; I stopped caring about getting a job.”
Yet, the resiliency and fighting spirit that service members are renowned for translate into a never-say-die mentality, Knight said. This attitude has paid off for Knight, who recently landed a job as a patient transporter with Mother Frances Hospital. But there are still many veterans such as Olson and Mrs. Howard who’ve honorably served and don’t want a handout — they just want an opportunity.
“There have been a lot of people saying that vets feel like they’re entitled,” Olson said. “My gut instinct is to grab those people and say, ‘Go get shot at and watch your buddies die and then come back and tell me how you feel. Because then, you might feel a little entitled, too.’ We get angry because all we want is a shot, an opportunity to prove what we’re worth.”
Olson summed up what he believes veterans want when returning back to civilian life.
“I just want someone to say, ‘You know what, he served his country, and we know he can be successful. He may not have the skills we’re looking for, but we can teach him. We can send him to school to learn how to type or use Excel. Let’s give him a chance.’ Ninety-nine percent of the veterans I know just want an opportunity to succeed or fail. We just don’t want to be dismissed.”
Derek Kuhn is a copy editor and page designer. He served in the Army from 2007 to 2012 as a public affairs specialist, eventually making the rank of sergeant. During that time he deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Tomodachi.