Bringing Wounded Warriors Into Your Workforce

By , February 15, 2011

You’ve made the decision to hire veterans, including those with disabilities, but you’re a little unsure how to make them feel welcome – especially after their years working in a military environment. As an employer you can take some steps that will help veterans, including wounded warriors, acclimate into your workplace.

1. Learn Military Culture
The first initiative should be to develop an understanding of military culture and experience. There are more than two million people serving in active or reserved duty in the U.S. military, with the majority serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Acquiring knowledge about this population’s values and structure can result in an employer’s improved ability to understand, communicate, and effectively interact with service members and their families.

For example, active duty members live on base and work full-time – 40 to 50 hours a week with full benefits, while reservists are considered part-time employees. Often, reservists who are deployed overseas and return home do not live in areas near a military facility for healthcare and other services that will screen for issues like traumatic brain injury (TBI) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And isolation from a strong military community can be difficult to adjust to post-deployment.

You can learn more about military culture regarding rank structure, branches of service, active versus reserve component, demographics, and military speak from a variety of websites, including America’s Heroes at Work and EssentialLearning.net, which offers a free a military cultural competence test.

2. Showcase Your Veteran-Friendly Company
Another way to help prepare a veteran with a disability for a job with your company is to promote your company and its job application process as being veteran-friendly. As you probably know, military service is an important part of a candidate’s background and can be a strong predictor of their leadership skills as well as their ability to receive and respond to supervision and training. (You can ask for proof of service by requesting their Department of Defense Form 214, or DD214, which contains a veteran’s accomplishments, promotions and training.)

Your company website and recruiting materials should clearly state that you value the service Veterans and their family members have given to the country and that you support the hiring of returning service members. America’s Heroes At Work recommends including a disability-specific statement such as:

“If you are a person with a disability or a disabled Veteran and are applying for a job with XYZ Company, we would like to ensure your application process goes as smoothly as possible. If you need additional assistance, information or answers to your questions, feel free to contact us (and offer an e-mail address and phone number to your company’s point of contact for military initiatives, rather than a general webmaster or electronic screening site).”

3. Consider the Effects of “Invisible Injuries”
Lastly, you may want to learn more about invisible wounds of war and their effects in the workplace. TBI and PTSD have been called the “signature injuries” of the military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to a 2008 study by the RAND Corporation, nearly one in five veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is currently living with depression or stress disorders, and 19% of troops say they might have experienced a TBI, usually as the result of a powerful roadside bomb.  People often group TBI and PTSD together because of their prevalence, and because they often co-exist in returning service members. However, TBI and PTSD are very different – TBI is a physical injury, while PTSD is a psychological health injury.

In the workplace, TBI can lend itself to poor concentration, fatigue, memory problems and depression. The good news is most TBI cases resulting from participation in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are mild concussions as opposed to severe brain injuries. And the most rapid recovery occurs in the first six months after the injury, and in milder cases patients will often be back to “normal” within three months.

Individuals with TBI are finding jobs in a variety of settings, but certain characteristics provide the greatest potential for workplace achievement and success, such as regular daily schedules, routine tasks and regular breaks. Employers can help people with TBI do their jobs more effectively by providing assistive technologies such as schedule-reminders (telephone, pagers, alarm clocks), work task checklists, tape recorders to aid memory and stop watches for time management.

Some people with TBI also benefit from role-playing exercises related to the job, job mentoring by a co-worker or retired worker, regular job evaluations, and by having their accomplishments recognized through positive reinforcement.

PTSD often is experienced by reliving a traumatic event in the form of flashbacks, nightmares or intense physical reactions. Symptoms and behaviors associated with PTSD may include difficulty falling or staying asleep, poor concentration, irritability, feeling “on edge,” and depression. PTSD can develop immediately following the traumatic event – or may take weeks, months or even years to develop. Fortunately, PTSD, like other psychology health injuries, is treatable.

In the workplace, employers can help people with PTSD do their jobs more effectively by providing flexible work schedules and/or job sharing with another employee, assistive technologies such as schedule reminders, scheduled rest breaks to prevent stimulus overload and fatigue, and white noise or environmental sound machines (to help eliminate distractions).

People with PTSD may, like those with TBI, also benefit by how employers act and speak to them.  Don’t label people with words like “crazy,” “wacko” or “loony” or define them by their diagnosis. Treat people with PTSD and other mental illnesses with respect and dignity, just as you would anybody else. And finally, consider hosting workshops to educate supervisors and coworkers on the facts.

For more information, check out America’s Heroes At Work.gov, for fact sheets on TBI and PTSD.

Taking care to understand military culture, promote an inclusive hiring process, and learn about invisible injuries will help ensure a successful employment environment for veterans with disabilities. And as a company, you’ll gain from the leadership experience, and years of discipline and training, that comes with a soldier who serves our nation.

Author: Suzanne Robitaille

Suzanne Robitaille is the founder of abledbody.com, a website on disability issues. She is the former assistive technology columnist for BusinessWeek.com, giving rise to her fascination with technology that helps people with disabilities surmount barriers in the workplace and life space. She is also the author of The Illustrated Guide to Assistive Technology & Devices. As a writer and blogger, Suzanne is a trusted source of disability information for The Wall Street Journal, ABC News, HealthDay, Media Post, Ability Magazine, Disaboom and more. Suzanne lost her hearing at age four and grew up profoundly deaf. In 2002 she received a cochlear implant, which she credits as "the ultimate assistive technology."