Transitioning back into civilian life from military service is a complex process entailing myriad challenges for the veteran, their families, and caregivers.
A 2015 survey of 8,500 veterans by the Institute of Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University found 60 percent identified navigating Veterans Administration programs, benefits, and services as one of their most significant transitional challenges. Of that same group of veterans, 55 percent added that finding a job and 41 percent cited adjusting to civilian culture as other issues with which they were having the most trouble.
MORE: See our special Veterans and Military Families Month coverage focused on overcoming employment issues
The federal government does have many programs designed to help. But for many, maybe even the majority of transitioning military service personnel, the most effective programs are those found at the local level.
Veterans Bridge Home (VBH) is a Charlotte, North Carolina-based nonprofit providing personalized counseling to veterans and their families, helping them find jobs, find housing, and connect to their community. VBH calls itself a one-stop-shop for the veterans in transition to civilian life and has been recognized as a model public-private partnership by such groups as the Bush Institute, the Gary Sinese Foundation, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff Office.
A Matter of Need
Tommy Rieman is a Silver Star recipient and Director of Philanthropy at VBH. He tells WorkingNation that veterans who come to them often don’t realize the extent of their needs.
“So usually they’ll come in because they think they need employment or housing, but what we find when we talk to them is there are usually two-and-a-half to three needs per family,” Rieman tells WorkingNation. “We discover these different needs, and it’s not just one time. We try to stay with the veteran and their family to service whatever needs that come up, and then also empower them, encourage them, to get them back out in the community and be the leader that we know they are.”
Employment makes up the second-most requested service at VBH and the group works with more than 200 employers who are committed to hiring veterans and military spouses. Despite the progress that’s been made in reintegrating veterans back into the workforce, Rieman says there are still some misconceptions that are hard to overcome.
“The biggest is probably that every veteran has PTSD or is broken or has some ailment preventing them from being amazing. Most of the people that have served did not face extreme combat, or did not face these intense austere circumstances, nor do most people understand the resiliency that is instilled in the service member,” he says.
“I believe that with the right structure and support with organizations like Veterans Bridge Home that just simply provide a few services, if you empower the veteran, you can watch them take over a company. You can watch them step into their power and to their community and become those leaders.”
Underemployment is another issue facing veterans according to Steven Cole, a former Army officer and VBH’s Vice President of Advancement. He’s experienced it first-hand. The military was his first job and it was massive. His first job in civilian life was with a small company.
“The reality is that I led 16 soldiers in my first job. The first job out of the military, the organization had only 25 people in it. You’re gonna be underemployed,” explains Cole. “The downside of that underemployment is that veterans tend to move. They tend to jump jobs which isn’t helpful to other veterans who are trying to find jobs because the reputation that we get is that you’re going to leave. We will, but because we’re underemployed. It’s a little bit of a Catch-22.”
Cole notes that bigger corporations are in a better spot to retain veterans because there’s more room for employees to move, either laterally or up the corporate ladder.
“You can be hired, you can be underemployed, but you can move up pretty quickly. We had a veteran who was not finding luck getting a job. He ultimately took a job — a retail job — in a home improvement store working in the flooring department,” he says. “That wasn’t his dream job getting out of the military, but he was like, ‘I gotta bring home some income, I need to work.’ By six months into that job, he’d been promoted twice and is now working at a corporate headquarters.”
A Change in Thinking
For veterans to be successful in the civilian workplace both they and corporate America have to alter their ways of thinking, according to Blake Bourne, VBH’s executive director.
“I think both the veteran and corporate America have a responsibility. It’s not all one or the other,” he explains to WorkingNation. “My advice for the veteran is to be patient, be vulnerable, and understand that you started from the ground up in the military and you did amazing things.”
“It’s not any different in the civilian sector. Nobody comes in as a general, nobody comes in as a colonel or a command sergeant major. A lot of times you’ll move faster than you may have in the military. So that willingness to be patient and work just as hard as you did will pay off dividends. We see it all the time,” Bourne adds.
On the corporate side, he advised companies to admit to what they don’t know and to take chances. “There is a lot of opportunity if you invest the time and energy into bringing in a veteran. Those first 90 days, they’ll be painful, they’ll be slow. But the 91st day, 100th day, the momentum and the impact that they’ll have on your teams and your culture will be worth that first slow, frustrating, ‘trying each other on’ time.”
A Transition Story
Getting veterans to seek help from organizations like VBH is part of the challenge for those who work there. Steven Cole’s own transition story after 20 years in the Army is a prime example.
“Transition was pretty surprising to me. I had two degrees that the Army had paid for, an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree. I had done a job that existed outside the military; I was doing public relations for the Army my last seven years and thought that it would be pretty easy to find a job,” he explains.
“I chose to move back to my hometown, Charlotte, North Carolina, so I had a network of friends and family. I had job experience that was relevant, and I expected everybody just to fall all over themselves to hire me. And it turns out they were not waiting for me — for 20 years — to get back there. That was hard for my ego. It was tough.”
A former West Point classmate suggested Cole meet with Bourne, Veterans Bridge Home executive director. “I said, ‘I don’t need any social workers helping me. I need a job.’ She said, ‘Seriously, get over yourself. Go meet Blake,'” recalls Cole.
They had coffee and talked about life and transition. Bourne suggested that Cole, because of his communications background, join the VBH board. “And I am thinking ‘Yeah, I need a job. That’s what I need first, and this volunteer stuff for your cute nonprofit, we will think about that later.'”
About two weeks later, Bourne came back to Cole and got him to serve on the Veterans Bridge Home board. “I volunteered on the board and then in April of 2018, a job opening up and he (Bourne) asked me if I would join the team.”
“It was an interesting path. Someone who was served by the organization, who served the organization, and now works in the organization has a pretty interesting perspective on the organization.”
“We do rely on one another, yet we’re pretty proud and self-sufficient. Nobody wants to talk to a nonprofit about their troubles. Most of the veterans we meet want to help our organization, which is the beauty of the veterans,” says Cole.
“We don’t ask for help and sometimes that gets in our way because we postpone the action that we need to take to get ourselves the help that we, or our families, need. It does take a little bit of sucking up your pride and asking for help. Sometimes it is what you have to do in order to get the help.”
MORE: WorkingNation Overheard talks with Rieman, Cole, and Bourne and others at America’s Warrior Partnership’s annual Warriors Community Integration Symposium