May 13, 2013

A Bipartisan Cause: Employing America's Veterans

Confiding to a friend after her son returned from the Civil War, a Massachusetts mother named Henrietta Maria Benson Homer wrote: “He came home so changed that his best friends did not know him, but is well & all right now.” One factor in helping make her son “well” is that he started working again. Painting would become his trade -- the young man’s name was Winslow Homer -- and in those days Americans awaited the work of master painters the way we anticipate the latest release from moviemakers such as Steven Spielberg or Kathryn Bigelow.

In the autumn of 1865, Winslow Homer unveiled a work titled “The Veteran in a New Field,” depicting a returning Union soldier harvesting an abundant crop of wheat. At first glance, it is hopeful image intended to comfort a nation wracked by the carnage of war and martyrdom of Abraham Lincoln. But contemporary Americans who gazed at that painting closely noticed a couple of disquieting details. For one thing, there was that title. The field Winslow Homer painted is not “new.” It’s a mature one, ripe for the reaping in late summer, when the image was being painted. That title refers to both the man’s “new” profession -- farming, not soldiering -- with its reminder that some of the bloodiest fighting in the Civil War took place in wheat fields.

Some viewers who looked even closer noticed something else. The single-bladed scythe in the painting is a familiar image: It’s that of the Grim Reaper, another reference to the killing fields of the Civil War. But that’s not all it meant. That type of scythe was out of date by 1865. The point here is that the soldier’s skills -- and his tools -- had also become obsolete while he was away at the front. Homer was touching on a recurring fear of those in uniform: Even if they make it through alive -- even if they make it through unscathed -- will there still be a place for them in their nation’s workforce?

It’s a worry men shared at Shiloh and Cold Harbor. They thought of home -- and of what work might await them -- in the trenches at Belleau Wood, the rain forests of the Solomon Islands, the beaches of Sicily, the snows of North Korea, the jungles of Vietnam, the deserts of Mesopotamia, and the arid moonscape of Kandahar.

Some share it even after they return home. “I’m scared,” one recently mustered young soldier from Augusta, Ga., told a private sector recruiter. “I don’t know what to do.” Gradually, this country that sends these warriors abroad has learned what do to. It was a lesson forged painfully, and in fits and starts.

In 1924, Congress passed a law guaranteeing bonus payments to the veterans of the American Expeditionary Force -- the “doughboys” who marched in 1917 with Gen. John J. Pershing into the “war to end all wars.” The catch was that the money wasn’t to be paid until 1945. In the Roaring Twenties, this was acceptable. But when the 1930s ushered in a severe economic depression that left most of the veterans out of work, they marched on Washington.

This “Bonus Expeditionary Force” camped in the nation’s capital. The House of Representatives voted to pay them immediately, but the Senate refused. The Bonus Army decided to remain in Washington -- until they were rousted on President Hoover’s orders by U.S. Army regulars under the command of Gen. Douglas McArthur and led in the field by a junior officer named George Patton. As the flames of the veterans temporary homes lit up Washington’s nighttime sky, one MacArthur military aide was stricken. His name was Dwight Eisenhower, and by the time the millions of troops under his command were mustered out of service at the end of World War II, their return to civilian life would be eased by the G.I. Bill.

But the nation’s appreciation for its military veterans is not a straight line. Returning Vietnam veterans were advised not the show up for job interviews in their uniforms, even if they were still in the service. They were called names by strangers, and asked offensive questions by prospective employers. Today we are doing better. Veterans are applauded at every home baseball game in Washington, D.C., and serenaded at public events around the country. It’s not uncommon today to see a well-heeled traveler give up his seat in first class to a uniformed member of the military heading overseas -- or home for a well-deserved break.

Such gestures are appreciated, but what those veterans want from society even more when they arrive home for good is the same as ever: They want the chance to apply their skills and training to a job in the civilian sector. Here, the nation’s record is mixed.

Why We Hire

The U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan has now lasted a dozen years. For the last 4½ years, veterans leaving the service have found themselves attempting to assimilate into an economy in which the official unemployment rate has been around 8 percent, with the real number significantly higher. Veterans have not been immune from these macro-economic problems -- and veterans in the 18-24 age range have fared even worse.

“This does not make any sense,” President Obama said on April 30. “If you can save a life on the battlefield, then you sure as heck can save one in an ambulance in a state-of-the-art hospital. If you can oversee a convoy of equipment and track millions of dollars of assets, then you can run a company’s supply chain or you can balance its books. If you can lead a platoon in a war zone, then I think you can lead a team in a conference center.”

A 2012 report by the non-partisan Center for a New American Security details some of employers’ concerns. They range from difficulties translating veterans’ skills to those of their industries to worries about accommodating veterans with injuries, including the psychic wounds of post-traumatic stress disorder. Many employers also conceded that in this era of seemingly unending wars, they worry about future deployments by the newly hired veterans, many of whom remain in the National Guard or the reserves.

Yet the detailed interviews with nearly 90 employers turned up many more reasons for putting ex-military employees on the payroll. “Hiring veterans is good business,” the report concluded. “The companies reported 11 reasons they hire veterans, with an emphasis on veterans’ leadership and teamwork skills, character and discipline.” This conclusion is becoming a consensus, in both the public and private sectors, and in polarized Washington it is one of those rare issue on which there seems to be little daylight between liberals and conservatives.

The Veterans Opportunity to Work Act of 2011, which grants tax credits to employers who hire veterans, passed the Republican-controlled House by 418-6 and the Democratic-controlled Senate, 95-0. It was embraced by President Obama, who signed it on Nov. 21, 2011 with a ringing call to action.

“Today, because Democrats and Republicans came together, I'm proud to sign those proposals into law -- and I urge every business owner out there who’s hiring to hire a vet right away,” the commander-in-chief said. “Today the message is simple: For businesses out there, if you are hiring, hire a veteran. It’s the right thing to do for you, it’s the right thing to do for them, and it’s the right thing to do for our economy.”

The administration has retained this focus. Even before the law had passed, the president challenged U.S. employers to hire 100,000 veterans by 2013. First lady Michelle Obama and vice presidential spouse Jill Biden launched an initiative called Joining Forces to keep a focus on this topic and other issues pertaining to veterans and their families.

Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Biden noted two weeks ago at a White House event that the nation’s employers had tripled their 100,000-vet goal, and had done so eight months early. “Today is simply just a mile marker, and we’re not going to stop until every single veteran or military spouse that is searching for a job has found one,” the first lady said while looking directly at the military families assembled in the room. “We will stand with you now and for decades to come.”

In this cause, the administration was not starting an effort; it was adding the prestige of the White House to an effort already well underway. In March of 2011, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- the president’s nemesis on many issues -- began hosting job fairs around the country as part of its “Hiring Our Heroes” initiative. The Chamber has now sponsored some 400 such job fairs.

Meanwhile, individual companies -- and entire industry sectors -- have stepped up. McDonald’s promised to hire 100,000 veterans itself over the next three years. Wal-Mart CEO Bill Simon followed that announcement by vowing that, beginning on Memorial Day, the retail giant will offer a job to any man or woman honorably discharged by this country’s armed forces. “Hiring a veteran can be one of the best business decisions you make,” he said. “Veterans have a record of performance under pressure.”

In making such assertions, executives are deferring to veterans’ sensibilities, as well as a fiduciary responsibility to their own shareholders. The main reason for hiring veterans, they say, is that it’s good for business. “Veterans are a good match for the railroads,” says Steve Toomey, manager of military and diversity recruiting for the CSX Corp. “Veterans have an appreciation of safety procedures and logistics, many have been trained in leadership, and they have demonstrated a willingness to relocate.”

So it makes sense that in G.I. Jobs magazine’s annual ranking of veteran-friendly employers, the railroad industry is well represented every year. (In 2013, all four major railroads were among the top 30, and two of them -- CSX and Burlington Northern Santa Fe -- were among the top five, along with USAA, Booz Allen Hamilton, and Deloitte Federal.)

But it’s not the only reason. “We also see hiring veterans to be one of our social responsibilities as a corporation,” Toomey said in an interview. In other words, although Mitt Romney might have been tone deaf when he told a heckler, “Corporations are people, my friend,” he wasn’t wrong. The bipartisanship of this topic also makes veterans employment a natural for RealClearPolitics. This week we will be highlighting coverage of this issue, culminating in a public event we are hosting in Washington on Friday.

That young combat veteran in Augusta, Ga., who admitted that he found the process of looking for work quite daunting, was confiding his fears to Steve Toomey. The CSX recruiter calmed him down with some simple advice. “That’s okay,” he told the young man soothingly. “Let’s make a plan.”