“When you go to a networking interview and a hiring manager asks you what you want to do, ‘What do you need done?’ is not a good answer,” Jim Craig explains. But “that’s the military mentality,” he says from experience.
Craig is a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army and is currently an associate teaching professor and chair of the Department of Military and Veterans Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
The United States has had an all-volunteer army since 1973. Contrary to veterans of previous generations, today’s veterans do not experience a lack of appreciation upon returning to civilian life, according to Craig. However, now there is a more obvious division between those who choose military service and those who do not.
“Americans don’t have a great understanding of what it is their military does. They’re proud of what the military does but not many actually choose military service so there is a gap. There is a gap of understanding, not of appreciation,” Craig told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh.
Timothy Welter, a former professional staff member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee and a current member of the American Enterprise Institute also joined Marsh on Tuesday. Welter went straight from high school to the Air Force Academy, to active duty. “I experienced [the civilian world] through family and friends that didn’t go the route of military but personally I didn’t have that experience,” he said.
Welter left active duty in 2005 and had to face gaps in how he understood civilian life. “It was difficult. It was daunting. It was frustrating to be someone who had succeeded on my career path until that point and all of the sudden to be facing these challenges, not understanding where the path was going to lead.”
Filling in the Understanding Gap
While the division exists between two worlds - military service and civilian life, veterans are the only ones forced to transition from one to the other. Veterans are forced to fill in their understanding gaps.
As Welter experienced it, “all of the sudden you are responsible for your medical care or other things that you didn’t have to think about or worry about [while on active duty].” Many daily parts of life that civilians gradually learn how to navigate, veterans are expected to learn all at once.
Craig explained, “I would suggest [that Veterans are very employable] however it is tough for a hiring manager to look at a veteran and understand how that veteran fits in the box they need. It is really the best companies that hire on potential.”
Craig continues to say that most companies hire on “prove me by what you did before” and in many veterans’ cases there is not a direct work correlation.
Welter attested to this struggle as well. “I was a pilot and I didn’t go to the airlines. I didn’t want to do that. How do you translate those skills and apply them to the corporate world?”
The companies that hire on potential (the “best” companies, in Craig’s words) are those that are able to fill in their own gaps in understanding. Those companies see how qualities gained through active duty could apply to positions in their workforce, even when examples of previous applicable work are absent.
After active duty Welter joined the reserves and “was able to continue to have some of that [camaraderie] but not on a daily basis.” He continued, “I think for a lot of veterans and folks who have transitioned it’s one of the key pieces they struggle to find. How do I become a part of the community that I’m in?” In addition to frustrations in the job hunt, the loss of camaraderie makes their situation more difficult to endure.
In his position at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Craig has started a Veterans Center to help student-veterans with that particular struggle. “We provide a cup of coffee, a work space, a social space. Anytime of day you’ll find two or three people in there talking to each other, having a cup of coffee, doing their homework. It just is comfortable. And I’ll tell you I don’t think you can replace the camaraderie. There is a hole you can’t fill, but you can get something close,” Craig explained.
When asked if the veterans have any responsibility for the understanding gap, Craig said, “Veterans are not immune from being part this issue. The veterans cannot sit back and say ‘no one understands me or what I can provide,’ and then expect other people to get it.”
“Even the Veterans Center itself may be, in an academic sense, problematic,” Craig admitted. “You want to build the connection among veterans but that connection has to then connect back to what you’re trying to do, or else you’re in an echo chamber.”
St. Louis Public Radio reporter Dale Singer recently highlighted the growth in area veterans centers, including one located at Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville. The community college’s proximity to Scott Air Force Base makes it a prime location for veterans.
Post 9/11 GI Bill
Welter points out that “probably one of the most generous benefits” given to our veterans today is the post-9/11 GI Bill. He was in D.C. at the time that legislation was being written. “It’s another tool in the toolbox. It has expanded. It’s not just pure college classes. They can use it for other forms of education that will help them with their transition.”
A New Breed of Veterans Service Organizations
While previous generations of veterans sought company through meeting halls, many younger veterans are connecting through social media. “What we have found is a new breed of veteran service organization that focuses on service to the community. They use social networks to do this. The Mission Continues is one. Team Red White and Blue is another type. You can’t find a Team Red, White and Blue office. These people meet and support each other through physical activity,” Craig explained.
Welter added, however that “a lot of veterans have a challenge with how many tools are out there and trying to figure out which one works best for you is a challenge for a lot of folks.”
Both Craig and Welter are involved in a panel discussion Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. They’ll address the topic of “Assessing the Impact of Our All-Volunteer Military: Finding Connections with Our Service Members and Veterans.”
St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.