Veterans, Employers, And The Hard Truth

Those who have devoted any portion of their lives to service of their country through the armed forces is deserving of some distinction. Though no public service is truly altruistic, the sacrifices made don’t often outweigh the benefits whether they are tangible or otherwise. In my limited time spent in the Marine Corps, about eight years now, I’ve seen a good number of Marines exit the Corps and jump into the civilian sector. They always leave with the highest hopes, finally able to get out from under this oppressive regime to go make some real money. I say that sarcastically, many of those I’ve seen leave wearing those rose colored glasses had never held a job before being a Marine, and being a Marine is probably one of the easiest jobs they’ll ever have. Their unbridled optimism is likely put in action to conceal their very real fear. With my time spent in uniform coming to a forced ending, I’ve put some thoughts down on paper on what veterans and employers face today.

To those who haven’t served, I can compare being a Marine to bowling with the bumpers up. It is nearly impossible to get a gutter-ball, and all you have to do is throw the ball down with some momentum and you’ll hit a few pins. The bumpers are all the rules and regulations, sure, but mostly they are the other Marines who want to see you succeed or at least not fail, because when you fail all you do is make more work for everybody else. I always tell my Marines the secret here is to just do what you are told, show up with a haircut on Monday, a shave every day, and be on time. Beyond that it is just bonus points and those aren’t all that difficult to accrue either.

As a society we have done an about face from how servicemen and women were treated in the Vietnam Era. I can’t even imagine coming home from Afghanistan and being spit on and called a baby-killer. Perhaps it was the collective guilt that thrust society to where we are now, but we have perhaps overshot our landing zone. Military service is romanticized in the media to an extreme extent. We have television shows like “Army Wives” that dramatize what is usually a pretty boring and standard life. The local news is filled with “homecoming” videos where some service member who was “deployed” for six months surprises his family by removing the giant cat head he was wearing on the baseball field during a mascot race. Everybody who ever put on a uniform is now a hero, whether they served two years in the Air National Guard or forty years and ended their career as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This has created an incredibly inefficient market in society, and especially in the labor market.

This pedestal that the military has been put on protects veterans from much of the standard scrutiny and allows many to parade unchecked through various spheres of public life. Whether it is on social media or in a work environment, the whole “veteran” tag all but removes you from the line of fire. Allow myself to both take advantage of that and expose myself to some criticism.

The following “all caps” statement and the follow-on paragraphs are intended for those serving and who have served.

JUST BECAUSE YOU WERE IN THE MILITARY DOES NOT MEAN YOU ARE SPECIAL!

There, I said it. I need to realize this too, this is my first step. Unless you were one of the unlucky ones who got drafted decades ago, you chose to do this. Many of us may say it was for God and Country but it was probably to get a chance to kill some terrorists and get paid some money, too. Those who have come in more recently without a real war taking place I honestly don’t know what they are doing here besides to get some free college and a military ID they can flash around town. We all had our reasons and like every other decision we make it wasn’t 100% altruistic. Stop fighting it. Come to terms with it. Many of us have sweat, bled and cried during our service, but we were never asked to do anything that we didn’t agree to do anyway. On top of that, we all got paid, and pretty well, plus we got medical care (though the quality can be debated), and if you don’t screw up you also get some pretty generous education benefits while you’re in and after you get out. We all did a job and got paid, simple as that. We should be proud for what we did, not many people out there would agree to kill and be killed for the sake of acquiring some higher and unknown outcome, but we aren’t special and it is time to we stopped acting like we are.

The pool of society is much larger than we ever will be, and holding onto this veteran mindset like we have been does nothing but isolates us and makes assimilation that much harder. We are, for lack of a better term, institutionalized. For a number of years you were surrounded with individuals who all share pretty much the same mindset. We all talk the same, walk the same, and whether we try to or not we push consistency and a removal of individualism. If a civilian showed up to our normal day we would cast them out until they started to behave more like us. Why then is it so surprising to us that the civilian world is doing the same when we try to show up to their normal day? Remember all that counter-terrorism training about blending in and not making yourself stick out? It is time to apply that to the civilian world.

I’ll always feel an affinity to other service members, it is comforting just to be around you and that will never change, Marines especially. We are a special kind of warped and I’ll always feel safer in that environment. But we are not helping ourselves by trying to be different and walking around with some form of superiority that doesn’t need to exist in any form or fashion.

Now I’ll leave a message to those in the civilian sector; especially those who may want to hire us.

What you get when you hire a veteran cannot be easily quantified or qualified. That can be cut both ways. Just because they served in the military doesn’t mean they were any good at it. It could also mean that they are light years ahead of a similar aged applicant. Remember the bowling analogy? Some of the best Marines I served with got out after four years, and some of the worst Marines I’ve served with somehow made it to twenty years or more, the inverse is also true. It is not only entirely possible to serve a period of time in the military and be a complete waste of space, it is quite common. The bumpers on the lanes make it incredibly easy to do this. Many times it isn’t their fault, in a world of “alphas” sometimes you just aren’t “alpha” enough and get cast aside. I’ve seen several Marines who were once useless step up to the plate and hit line drives into the proverbial stands after a more domineering individual moved on. Unfortunately though there are many that simply just fill a uniform and do little to actually contribute.

This is hard to distinguish if you aren’t familiar with what actually goes on in the military. The movies, television and books would have you believe we are all hard-charging, highly disciplined and skilled practitioners of warfare. The military does their part in perpetuating this; it keeps kids coming into the recruiting offices. Nobody wants to sign over a chunk of their life to sit in a chair and generate spreadsheets to track spreadsheets, but this is closer to the truth than glorious and noble combat. Even those who have been in combat will tell you it is just a few minutes out of their lives that they spent months training for and then it is all over.

Just like in your world we have good employees and bad employees. The only difference is that it takes a lot to fire our bad employees; usually they have to break a law or three before we can show them the door. I once had a Marine get high as a kite on cough medicine at work and continue to do so and it took us almost a year to kick him out, all the while he kept getting high. We are forced to extract some sort of work out of our Marines or it makes us look like bad leaders. It is like doubling down on a bad investment, a company you know will be going to zero, but you keep pouring money into it. We are forced in one way or another to be a “bagholder.” Those bad investments then get delisted from the Marine Corps and get relisted in your world, and they’re going to try to get you to invest in them. How do you spot these bad investments? There are some questions you can ask, though they don’t have a right or wrong answer you can extract some valuable information.

“What did you contribute to the (insert branch of service here) during your time?”

“What were your motivations for joining?”

“Why did you decide to get out?”

“How will your role in the military help you or hurt you in this position?”

“What was the toughest leadership decision you had to make and why did you make it.”

“What would you say your legacy was to the armed forces? What or who did you change for the better?”

There are also some things you can ask for or about. Just about every branch has some sort of regular assessment schedule. The Marine Corps issues Proficiency and Conduct marks to all junior level enlisted and fitness reports for everyone else. These are a treasure trove of information on the individual and familiarizing yourself with what they mean can pay huge dividends. If they are hesitant to produce this information then there is something wrong, anybody who served any amount of time with any sort of distinction will be thrilled to show you their fitness reports (Fitreps) or Proficiency and Conduct markings (Pros and Cons). If they have an individual award listed then ask them about that as well, they may even provide the summary of action that led to them receiving that award.

The bottom line, and the point I am trying to get after, is that there are good veterans and not-so-good veterans. For those of you reading this that served, and served well, you should be cheering these points. The job market is competitive, and those not-so-good veterans are crowding you out making it that much harder to properly exploit your service and experience.

I can safely say that many of those I have served with I wouldn’t mind working with outside of this environment. Perhaps I am lucky, but I have met some of the very best men and women that I likely ever will in my last eight years here. There are some that if I were to start a business, any business, I’d call them and beg them to come work with me. The discipline, persistence in the face of adversity, and selflessness that military service instills in you is incredibly valuable and extremely difficult to reproduce elsewhere. Employers, if they know how and where to look, can find priceless assets in the veteran community.

 

 

 

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