Employing America’s Heroes

Emily King gave me an embarrassed grin as she struggled not to cry. “I always choke up when I tell this story”, she said sheepishly. I smiled broadly and encouraged her to go on. She did, and thus began the first of many lessons she’d share with me that afternoon.

In her own words:

“After checking into [my] hotel, I proceeded to the wrong bank of elevators and rode it for awhile before realizing my mistake and getting off. Waiting with me for the next car down was a young guy – early 20s at most – with one arm covered in tattoos, and the other arm gone. Beside him was a canvas tote bag with a large prosthetic arm sticking out.

He was not in uniform; rather, he wore a plain t-shirt, jeans and a baseball cap. I wanted to acknowledge him but hesitated, thinking, “This has to be a war injury. But…what if it isn’t? No, it has to be – why else would a 20-something have such an injury?” Before opening my mouth to ask him about it, he asked me a question. “Ma’am, do you know if you have to turn in your room key?” I said I wasn’t sure but didn’t think so. I asked him if he had served and, when he said yes, I thanked him. He replied, “Oh, thank you, ma’am. It was my pleasure and I served with a smile.”

He took his room key out of his pocket and said, “I hate walking through the lobby with this prosthetic arm, getting stared at.” I said, “Let me do it. It’s the least I can do.” He seemed relieved. I felt humbled.

As I walked to the front desk with his key, I thought to myself, “This is what it is going to mean for us.” “Us,” meaning us Americans. Civilians. Going about our daily lives, we may encounter someone with a visible war injury. My friends who work in the DoD’s Wounded Warrior program have said that wounded veterans don’t want pity from civilian employers and co-workers, but a little patience is helpful. “Soldiers are used to being active and they want to be active again, even if they are injured. They will be active again.”” ~ Emily King

Emily is someone you need to know. She’s the founder of MyMilitaryTransition.com, is a nationally recognized expert on military-to-civilian transitions, spent over a decade with Booz Allen Hamilton in HR strategy and holds a MS in OD and applied behavior science. In short, she’s smart, she understands the problem and has developed a wonderful sense of how to address this systemic issue facing America’s veteran workforce.

Emily recently presented as part of SHRM’s wonderful two-day program, Military Veterans: Transitioning Skills to the New Economy. I applaud SHRM for their work in this area, and as their research shows below, we have a long way to go in educating employers on the benefits that our veterans can bring to their organizations.

But beyond hiring, retention becomes the next key issue, and this is the where Emily’s work really shines. Based on her deep understanding of the differences between military and civilian work culture, she translates civilian culture, expectations and behavioral norms for transitioning military personnel so they experience early and lasting success in the private sector. That’s right – early and lasting success, and this helps bolster the dialogue and understanding between both groups so that veterans succeed as civilians. In turn, organizations accelerate productivity and increase retention among this invaluable segment of the workforce. You really couldn’t ask for anything more.

I’ll leave you with a final thought from Emily King. It was one of the most important lessons she shared and I’d encourage you to truly ponder the meaning of her words. After that, please share your thoughts, comments and stories below. We need to speak more openly about our returning veterans and the challenges associated with their transition into sustainable employment post-service. In my opinion, silence and inaction are simply not an option.

For those of us civilians who have only experienced war through the media…where we might want to look away, we need to look ahead. Where we want to be silent we need to say thank you. It is only our own discomfort that stands in the way. My encounter today with the young serviceman who had lost his arm showed me a bit about what the war meant for him. Bearing witness to it as we welcome soldiers home is what it means for us.

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Kathleen Smith

Our returning veterans are our nation’s greatest resource and yet we do not have a concentrated effort to support them through their transition. We spend a great deal of time recruiting our military and training them, but when they want to leave and return to private life we give them maybe a week’s worth of training and support by a very underfunded department of the military – MWR or TAP/ACAP.

There is much more I can say, but like many in this arena I get fired up and choked up at the same time. I applaud Emily’s organization for its efforts and we all need to do more.