Setting the Record Straight: Dispelling Bias and Myths Regarding Veterans
Neat, symmetrical rows of joggers matching each other step for step in identical standard-issue gear. A woman restlessly wakes herself screaming, sweating, and out of breath, the images in her mind still haunting her. A group of men jumping noiselessly out of a helicopter under cover of darkness moving with certainty and precision. A man berating and belittling the people who look to him for guidance. These are some of the images of veterans in popular culture. Like many stereotypes, they germinate from a single seed and soon grow and overtake the narrative, leaving little room to find the truth. Hollywood, well-versed in mining history to make box-office hits from wars, battles, and soldiers’ lives, is now partnering with organizations, such as Got Your Six, and military consultants to more accurately translate life into art. This is important to help re-shape the narrative about veterans. Below, we set the record straight on some of the myths perpetuated in popular culture to change perception to match reality: veterans can be leaders and assets for businesses and communities.
MYTH: Veterans are damaged heroes who have PTSD and other mental health disorders that affect them in the workplace.
FACT: Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can occur in any individual exposed to a potentially traumatic event beyond a typical stressor. This includes events such as personal assaults, natural or human-caused disasters, accidents, combat, and other forms of violence. Over half of the American population experiences trauma at some point in their lives; however, only 7 to 8% will experience PTSD throughout their lives. Every year 8 million American adults suffer from this treatable illness.
Given these facts, it is true that service members can develop PTSD; however, it does not affect all who served. The data does suggest that the service era plays a role in the prevalence of PTSD in a given year. Even then, the odds are in the veteran’s favor, regardless of the popularized view. What’s more, funding and studying in this area has increased to help identify treatments that help. Whether it’s PTSD, depression, anxiety, or any other mental health disorder, it is important to recognize the prevalence of these disorders and that they affect the entire population and are not exclusive to a particular subset.
MYTH: Veterans are trained for combat, not the corporate world.
FACT: Transitioning service members bring with them a considerable reserve of transferable skills, both technical and soft. Attention to detail, precision, problem-solving, thinking spatially; these are just some of the technical skills former service members may have. Service men and women don’t just manage weapons, but also logistics and budgets. Aside from being soldiers, there are documentation specialists, public affairs officers, lawyers, the list goes on. Many of them are end users to products made by manufacturers, making them well-suited to innovate solutions or even speak to the value of the product.
For any military operation to succeed, the team has to succeed. That focus on team rather than individual results is increasingly sought after as companies work cross-functionally to address problems and identify answers to tomorrow’s problems. They are also in need of next-generation leaders. Often, veterans come with the already tested ability to be leaders; having managed teams and honed their ability to complete a situational analysis to make critical, timely decisions. By managing others, veteran leaders know the importance of learning about the individuals on their teams to better understand their motivations and concerns. This helps them both achieve the desired outcome and also helps grow and retain talent. Another common complaint heard from executives? Company culture or teams that struggle with failure and decision paralysis. Failure is a fact of life. Veterans are steeped in a culture that acknowledges failure, error, and implements corrective action. As General David Petraeus (Ret.) states, “There has to be an appropriate culture of freedom to fail.” The thoughtful post-mortem approach taken by the military to achieve continuous improvement is directly transferable to the business setting. Furthermore, that ability to take action (at times with incomplete information) and learn quickly from failure is essential in today’s changing business environment.
MYTH: The talent isn’t there.
FACT: Gone are the days of the draft and the complicated history that accompanies it. Veteran unemployment is below that of the general population. As of October 2018, the veteran unemployment rate was 2.9%, below the 3.5% for non-veterans in the same period. Thus, the numbers suggest they are being scooped up by employers at a better rate, so the talent must be there. Moreover, many of our service members opt to serve either before or after completing advanced degrees. Some choose to attend 4-year institutions such as West Point and the Naval Academy on their way to service, and others take advantage of the 9/11 GI Bill to further boost their knowledge and credentials upon return. A study by the Student Veterans of America (SVA) found that veterans earned 453,000 degrees since 2009. Those degrees ranged from business, management, and marketing, to health, computer, and information sciences. What’s more, their overall success rate of 72%, is considerably higher than the 60% success rate among first-time, full-time students. Specifically, the SVA study breaks down the number of degrees by field, with 51,486 degrees earned in STEM fields. Not only is the talent there when it comes to our veterans, but the numbers show the work ethic developed while in service continues to help them prepare and develop themselves afterward.
MYTH: They won’t fit in with the company culture because they are overly aggressive, rigid thinkers.
FACT: As we’ve written before, it is important to rethink what it means to “fit” into the company culture. Many veterans have proven leadership ability and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances quickly. Moreover, service members cannot be seen as a monolith. They bring diversity of thought and experience (as well as gender, racial, ethnic diversity). Many have traveled extensively and interacted with others from different cultures and languages. Depending on roles, it might have been imperative for a service member to develop high-level relationships with people from different countries, cultures, and backgrounds. These experiences and interactions enable them to appreciate just how enriching diversity of opinion and diversity of background can be in decision-making. The ranks of the military are filled with engineers, former thespians, and scientists; holding onto notions of “fit” is a rigid way of evaluating potential talent.
FACT: The view of veterans as broken, fragile, inflexible, and incapable of fitting into the business world is unduly harmful. Veterans are a cache of resilient, talented, agile-thinking, well-spoken, and polished potential employees and leaders. Companies would be best served to ensure hiring leaders, hiring committees, and others in positions of influence (as well as their general workforce) are informed of the truths of service members. The facts clearly show that a strategy that recruits, hires, and retains veterans will yield experienced and proven leaders ready to continue to serve.