A soldier’s letter to civilians: So you think you are a patriot?

Op-Ed by Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Carol Eggert, SVP of Military and Veteran Affairs at Comcast NBCUniversal

Carol Eggert headshot
Carol Eggert, Brig. Gen. (Ret.), SVP of Military and Veteran Affairs for Comcast NBCUniversal (Photo: WorkingNation)

A civilian who is a patriot wants to do more than give the oft-heard platitude “thank you for your service” while rushing about their day but may find it difficult to know where to start.

We owe more than a five-word sentence to those who secure our freedom, place themselves in harm’s way, withstand numerous and frequent separation from loved ones, and are willing to give some, or all, in service to this Nation. A patriot knows, as George Washington once said, that a “nation is judged by how well it treats its veterans.”

How much do you really know about this nation’s military community? If you do not come from a military family, live near a military base, or work in the defense industry, you may have limited opportunities to understand the challenges and complexities of serving in the military.

This lack of knowledge, or what we call “military cultural competency,” is negatively impacting our veterans and our country more than you might think.

Let me start by assuring you that this is not your fault! The widening gap between the military and the nation is often referred to as the civilian-military divide, or the familiarity gap, and can be traced to the introduction of the All-Volunteer Force and to the changing demographics of those who serve.

Currently, less than one percent of the population serves in the military and only seven percent of the population are veterans, a significant decline from 35 percent in 1990. According to a Center for a New American Security (CNAS) study, the familiarity gap is widening, with 60 percent of all adults reporting having a family member who serves.

For those under 40 years old, only 40 percent report a connection to the military. Not surprisingly, of those under 30 years old, only 33 percent report a family connection to the military.

Why does it matter? What is the impact of this lack of cultural competency? What can you do about it?

It matters because when a nation separates itself from those who serve, fewer young men and women will see military service as a viable career choice, which directly impacts the strength of our military, therefore our national security. When veterans who feel undervalued or misunderstood, they may choose to forego continued public service, like serving in Congress, limiting critical voices shaping our country’s policies and legislation.

This familiarity gap also dramatically impacts veteran employment when transitioning to civilian employment. This is where civilians have a significant opportunity to lessen the civilian-military divide.

While the military has remained among the most esteemed institutions, many in the public will admit that they have very little understanding of the challenges faced by veterans in transition. The CNAS study also found that while many feel pride and trust in the military, less than 60 percent follow through on those feelings with any actions to help a member of the military community.

This is significant when it impacts military hiring. Employers who have very little contact with the military community find it difficult to recruit, interview, hire and retain military talent.

Often their knowledge comes from the conflicting narrative in media and entertainment that portrays veterans as either broken victims or heroes. Neither impression leads to a robust hiring program and can foster programs based on pity or admiration rather than an informed understanding of the value of military talent.

So, what would a patriot do?

Learn. There are innumerable opportunities to connect civilians to those who serve. From YouTube videos to live community-based events. You might think the military needs a “bring a civilian to work” day, and, in fact, they do have such programs, like the Department of Defense’s Know Your Military. The Army’s Twilight Tattoo, the Navy’s Fleet Weeks, or the Marine Corps’ Evening Parade are just some of the other opportunities the military hosts to help their services connect with civilians. If you’re unable to attend these examples, look for others in your local area.

Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families is another great resource as the first interdisciplinary national institute in higher education focused on military community research.

Volunteer. Spend time with a veteran service organization, these also are often staffed only with military-connected volunteers. A few hours at the USO in any airport will help you understand the challenges faced by our military families.

Of the 5.5 million military caregivers in the US, 1.1 million are caring for a service member who served after September 11, 2001. The Elizabeth Dole Foundation offers wonderful opportunities to support military caregivers in your community.

Act. If you’re in an HR role and seeking military talent for your organization, promote programs that educate and empower hiring managers and recruiters to better engage with military applicants. The PsychArmor Institute offers free, online resources and courses to empower employers in creating military-ready workplaces.

Invest. Enroll in the Society for Human Resources Management’s (SHRM) Veterans at Work Certificate Program. This free program was created for HR professionals, hiring managers, and front-line supervisors to learn the value that skilled veterans bring to the civilian workplace. Those who complete the course also earn ten professional development credits toward their SHRM-CP or SHRM-SCP recertification.

Citizens have many ways to build military cultural competency and employers have in front of them one of the best opportunities to narrow the civilian-military gap — offering meaningful employment.

The military talent pool is overflowing with individuals possessing highly valuable skills honed through real-world experiences that will undoubtedly benefit their organizations. When individuals in general, and employers specifically, learn ways to engage with those who serve, not only will our communities and companies reap significant benefits, but they’ll also be able to say with confidence that they’re patriots.

Carol Eggert is the SVP of Military and Veteran Affairs for Comcast NBCUniversal and a retired Army Brigadier General. Follow her on Twitter: @Carol_Eggert

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