How to Get Wounded Veterans Back to Work

Veterans returning home from long months of war are finding themselves in a country with narrowing opportunity. But for those who sustained mental or physical injuries in the war, this task is even harder. Many of the participants in the Wounded Warrior program had no intention of leaving the army, planning instead on life-long military careers. Dave Ward, director of the Wounded Warrior Project's Warriors to Work program, is one of many who intervene in these veterans' lives, assisting them on the path from injury to employment. Recently, he spoke with The Atlantic.

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How does the Warriors to Work program help wounded veterans get back into the workforce?

Any Wounded Warrior who qualifies for the wounded warrior project is called an alumni. They can sign up for any of our 16 programs, with Warriors to Work being one of those programs. 

The statistics are high regarding unemployment for veterans, but then you throw in the challenge of a wounded veteran, those stats go up even higher and it's even more challenging. With the Warriors to Work Team, we've had some really good success because we focus our efforts right with the warriors in what we call a high-touch service. We're going to know the warriors on a personal level; we're going to know what their skill sets are; we're going to know what assistance they need because they are going to tell us. We're going to engage them locally. Our goal is to honor and empower wounded warriors. Our focus is to help them get the best job they can get. We don't want to offer them too much support or to little support, we want to offer them the exact amount of support that they need.

We also help educate the employers on how to go about identifying talent within our organization, how to go about appropriately onboarding a warrior who has PTSD, and some of the dos and don'ts. That hopefully makes it a more successful placement. 

With veteran unemployment outpacing national unemployment, have you seen more frustration from the veterans you are working with? 

I've seen frustration, but more than the frustration, I've seen people just being very nervous, and quite honestly, a little bit scared because of the unknown. A lot of these warriors are young and they planned to make the military their career -- you know, they planned on 20-plus years and all of a sudden they are 21, 22, 23 years old, and they are thrown back into the civilian world. So it's more of that sense of the unknown. They think "I don't know what I bring to the table, I didn't go to school yet, I just got my high school diploma -- what am I going to be able to do?" It's our job to really get down those great skills they learned in the military and help them transition that to civilian terminology, and help the employer understand that as well. 

Yesterday, the Senate passed a measure that will add tax incentives for hiring veterans. Do you think that measure will be effective? 

Any incentives put in place will certainly be beneficial. Most of the employers that we are working with want to hire warriors and veterans because they truly appreciate the work ethic and skill set they have learned in the military. They value those skill sets and want to bring the warriors on. Their not doing it because they want a tax credit, they're doing it because they are bringing on a talented young person and that's been my experience as the reason to hire wounded warriors. But I do think it will have a positive impact, I'm just not sure how many more employers are going to want to jump on board just because they are getting a better tax write off. 

We're working with so many different employers who have called us and we're fielding calls every day from employers that want to hire warriors. But that doesn't mean that every single employer I talk to is going to hire a warrior -- maybe two out of every ten I talk to actually end up hiring. There's a process to do so and the economy is very bad. And they're getting 500 to 1000 resumes per job. It's my goal to help these employers set up the process. Are you going to give them preferential consideration for these jobs? How are you going to make sure their resumes are being considered? 

What are the misconceptions an employer might have about a "Wounded Warrior"?

A lot of people think Wounded Warriors, and they think they are going to be missing a limb or something like that. Or, they are extremely emotionally vulnerable and on the edge -- and on the edge of maybe going off or causing a scene -- and that really isn't the case. By the time they get to Warriors to Work, we're hoping we've done some really good work with them in mind, body, and spirit so they're in a much better place in the process to the transition to what we call "the new normal." They're in a great place to go to work and that they are mentally, emotionally, and physically in a great place to go into the civilian workforce and go tackle that.

I can tell you I talk to a lot of employers who just don't really understand PTSD or traumatic brain injury and what that means for someone who has suffered that or incurred that injury. They really have no idea about their capabilities or disabilities. It's a part my job to educate employers that in a person with PTSD, you might not even be able to see it. And quite honestly, probably 80 percent of your entire staff has had PTSD at some point in their life -- they lost someone they love or they have been in a car accident, a variety of different things -- and they're okay now. They've gone through it and got better. It's really just educating them because they don't have a very good idea of what that means.

What's the "new normal"?

A lot of the warriors we are working with didn't want to leave the military. They had to leave the military because of their injury. So when they're entering the civilian world, we call that the new normal. It's what their new normal life is going to be outside of the military, working in a civilian job, working with civilians. That's much different than working in the military, and there certainly is a process for transition there. We try and help them in mind, body, and spirit to make that transition as painless but successful as possible.

Do you find that some employers don't understand the value of military experience?

One of the first things we do is help the warriors with their resume. When we first take a peek at most of them, they have all this military terminology on there and certainly the civilian world does not understand that terminology. They certainly don't understand the values and the skills this warrior might have learned in the military. So, we'll work with them to translate that military terminology, to civilian terminology, to real life skills.

What are the opportunities available to a young wounded veteran who hasn't been to college? 

We're working with hundreds of employers that we have accrued, and that are posting jobs to our private website for our warriors to take advantage of. We have great relationships with Under Armor, which is a fantastic supporter of ours.

We place a lot of Wounded Warriors in human resources positions, mechanical, logistics. We're not just going to throw a warrior into retail if they don't have a retail desire or retail experience or those skills that can transfer. We're going to listen to them and find out what they want to do. And if they don't have the experience or education to do that, but they have the ability to go back to school, we're going to help support them to get back to school and get on that career path. We don't want them to go into the workforce if they are not ready and that is not what they want. 

With veteran unemployment increasing, has your job become more difficult?

I don't think it's getting harder, I think more warriors are being identified who need our help. We have a lot of people coming for us for support. I don't know if it is getting harder. It's a big job, and we're certainly up to the task of tackling it.