Monday, November 12, 2007

Supporting the troops has to go beyond putting a yellow magnet on your car

This morning on NPR there were two stories that had the same core issue: the Bush administration has abrogated its responsibility to take care of its citizens -- but neither pointed a finger. The first, on Aqua Dots and the fact that they are made in China and elute GHB when swallowed by children, is yet another story about how the underfunded (and under-missioned) CPSC isn't doing anything related to C, P, or S.

The second, about Steve Kraft, an Iraq veteran who cannot get job, was an intimate story of one vet as told mostly in his own words. NPR kept it small, but the gaps between the lines, the places where a bigger story can be read, were big enough to drive the world's largest economy through. Kraft said, in effect "I've just had greatest leadership training you can get, and no one seems to find value in that."

The first thing that sits between the lines is the GI Bill. We have one now, the Montgomery GI Bill, but it's not the same as the original. People coming back from war need a way to reenter nonmilitary society, a way to wrap a familiar coating around the foreignness of their military experience, and a plan that sends them to school is one way to provide that. We already struggle with the education of our citizens and are becoming a dumber and dumber country. Why not invest in education at least for veterans, enabling them to benefit intellectually and at the same time look more "normal" to those who didn't serve?

The original GI Bill of Rights educated 7.8 million of 16 million World War II veterans. It also provided nearly 2.4 million home loans for them. If we ask people to serve, then we need to serve them in turn.

Related to the GI Bill is another reentry activity: career services support. I'm sure if I started googling I'd find an agency that provides such services for veterans. Sadly, I'm sure it's underfunded as well as understaffed. But this is the most important service related to war: what's the point of having it if you end up with a lot of miserable, unemployed veterans who are not participants in the peace? Veterans should receive the best career services that can be provided. Plus they actually could contribute quite substantially to business leadership and the economy.

Part of this is employer education; individual veterans can educate prospective employers about their experience (and Steve Kraft actually explains its value well). But why should individual veterans have to do all the work themselves? There should be an employer education program about the value (and challenges) of hiring veterans. Right now, it's almost as if they are analogous to felons: recently returned from an alternate society, and therefore perceived as unemployable.

One key area that employers would need to understand is the respect issue. Kraft talked about how he did not feel respect from his manager and that he resented the work he was given, that it showed disrespect for his skills. People in the military work in a field of trust that is beyond what we experience as civilians: they must trust others totally, and thus in turn be totally trustworthy, in order to survive. To reenter a culture where trust and respect are not immediately given is going to be tough for everyone. Employers need to know that they must express trust in veterans (which can make even menial jobs more palatable), and veterans need to be prepared (via coaching) for situations where respect takes a multiplicity of forms and may not be immediate.

The second item is the economy, stupid. The Iraq war is ruining our economy. Veterans are returning to an environment where the economy is shrinking, where there are fewer jobs. Bush is getting us coming and going: sending people to war, wrecking the economy, not providing jobs when they return. The next president is going to have to have a major veterans reentry plan, or this will become not just unnerving but politically ugly.

And then it becomes small again. I kept thinking, "How many employers are listening to this?" I'm sure that's what NPR hoped would happen: that perhaps the story would change employers' views of veterans. My first thought is that we at my university need to beef up career services for veterans. Can someone hire a veteran to provide advising specifically to them? Can we create a separate business to advise veterans? There's a business opportunity. And then I went, whoops, I am an employer. I just hired four people. I am responsible for hiring a veteran.

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