Breaking Misconceptions of the Veteran Community

by Eric Bruns - President, Voice for Veterans

Nations have often struggled with the challenge of reintegrating military veterans into civilian society upon the completion of their service.  While the United States has a checkered past in how we have approached reintegrating our veterans over the past 70 years, we have made a concerted effort since the end of the Vietnam War to support the men and women that volunteered to serve our nation.  In fact, the American people now see the military as one of the most trusted institution within the United States.  According to 2016 Gallup polls, 73% of the US population expressed a “great deal or quite a lot” of confidence in the US Military.  When compared with other institutions such as big business (21%), Congress (12%), the church/organized religion (41%), or the criminal justice system (23%), the degree to which the military and its members are trusted by society becomes clear.  However, after leaving such an esteemed organization, many military veterans still struggle to find meaningful employment upon their transition from the military.

One of the most impactful things we can do to help support our veterans is to assist them to find meaningful employment.  Many employers express a desire to employ veterans within their businesses.  However, when it comes time to make a decision, many businesses hesitate to hire a veteran.  Often, they cite an unwillingness to take a perceived risk on hiring veterans due to general misconceptions and generalizations of the veteran community.  It is ironic because veterans often display the characteristics that many businesses claim to look for in ideal job candidates; teamwork, innovation, initiative, and integrity.  Together, we can work to dispel some of these misconceptions and promote a positive understanding of the qualities that a veteran can bring to your next job

#1 – Veterans don’t understand how to work in diverse teams.     

This is one of the biggest misconceptions about the veteran community.  It stems from the false perspective that only one type of person tends to join the military and that the culture is dominated by stereotypical white, Christian male viewpoints and it squashes any sort of dissenting viewpoint.  This is absolutely, 100% untrue.  The military is one of the most diverse organizations in the country.   

The military sees itself as a profession and conducts itself accordingly.  The military works very hard to ensure its Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines understand that everybody, regardless of their gender, race, creed, or orientation is treated equally in the military.  They are trained to understand the practical and moral reasons to embrace the strengths of a diverse organization.  There is no pay gap in the military based on gender, race, creed or anything else imaginable.  Everybody is paid according to the exact same pay chart based on rank and time in service.  Everybody is expected to execute their job to the necessary standard regardless of their belief or background.

The military has come to understand that embracing people from diverse backgrounds can greatly increase its effectiveness in accomplishing its mission.  It understands that fostering diversity can lead to a significant advantage in modern warfare.  A group of people from diverse backgrounds, looking at a problem, can often come up with more innovative, effective solutions.  In a world where poor planning and decisions can lead to severe injury or death, a wholehearted embrace of diversity makes sense.

Veterans are uniquely positioned to operate well with diverse groups of people upon the completion of their service.  They have internalized an outstanding ability to function well within a diverse group of colleagues and understand the value that diversity brings to an organization.      

#2 – Veterans can’t function without somebody telling them what to do

This is another false belief that originates from a general lack of understanding of the military and how it operates in the contemporary environment.  I’ve heard multiple employers and business leaders tell me that they think a veteran wouldn’t be the best fit for their company because they don’t work well within a flat, collaborative organization.  Many seem to believe that without a rigid hierarchy to give orders, a veteran will flounder in the ambiguity.  In fact, veterans are extremely comfortable at working in dynamic, high pressure environments.

Over the past few decades, the military has continually embraced a doctrinal philosophy of decentralized execution of operations.  From the lowest level private to the highest ranking commander, members of the military are trained to figure out how to accomplish their given objectives on their own.  Very rarely, if ever, is there are a superior officer holding their hand and explaining how they should run a firing range on Fort Lewis or conduct an air assault mission to sweep and clear an isolated mountaintop in Afghanistan.  Veterans have grown comfortable with being uncomfortable. 

This breeds a high level of initiative and independence among those that have military experience.  This can demonstrated by the rate that veterans start their own businesses.  Over 25% of veterans will go on to start and run their own business upon the completion of their military service.  Contrasted with the national average that states approximately 13% of the US population were starting or running new businesses, we can surmise that veterans are twice as likely as non-veterans to strike out on their own and become entrepreneurs.                

#3 – Veterans lack the ability to innovate

This misconceptions is founded on the stereotype that veterans lack creativity due to their familiarity of operating within the military chain of command.  It is based on the perception that the military only wants and trains mindless automatons that cannot think critically or operate in dynamically.  In fact, the level of innovation and adaptability that veterans have shown during their military service is downright impressive.  There are many examples of the innovative and effective solutions that veterans have come up with to overcome serious problems during their service. 

One group of Soldiers in Baghdad solved the problem of roadside bomb emplacement and transportation in their area by slapping together a broken TV, cardboard, black spray paint, and writing “bomb detector” on it in Arabic.  After putting this bit of deception at their vehicle and personnel checkpoints, the nervousness it induced in insurgents after seeing the “bomb detector” led to an increase in arrests of enemy combatants and a decrease in IED attacks throughout the surrounding area.  This simple yet effective $5 solution, improvised by Soldiers on the ground, proved more effective in providing security than many of the multi-million dollar defense contracts drawn up by high level contractors and civilians.

In Afghanistan, Soldiers operating within volatile Kunar Province were saddled with the problem of dealing with a hostile population that consistently lied about the identity of insurgents, and locations of weapon supplies and enemy attack positions.  By understanding that local culture greatly valued the concept of honor, and that being caught in a lie greatly shamed a person, the Soldiers came up with an innovative solution to get the local population to answer questions truthfully.  They took a simple, yet high tech looking, eye piece from a prototype mobile information system, attached it to their helmets and brought the tiny piece of equipment with them on all patrols.  Whenever talking to local residents, the Soldiers would simply lower the eye piece over their left eye.  When the local villager asked what the eye piece was, the Soldier would simply respond, “Oh this?  This is our new lie detector.”  After this simple yet ingenious solution, the amount of actionable intelligence given by local villagers increased dramatically and the Soldiers were able to greatly disrupt local insurgent operations and increase security in the area.  

Hopefully, dispelling some of the misconceptions about the veteran community will inspire our business community to step up their willingness to hire veterans.  While certifications and skills can be learned, the qualities that veterans attain during their service cannot be replicated anywhere outside of the military.  Hiring our veterans should not have to be seen as a risk for a business, but an opportunity to hire a dedicated and energetic team player that will produce an excellent return on investment for your company.  In the end, a concerted push to hire our veterans is a win-win for our businesses, local communities, and our veterans.