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Memorial Day Musings

TL;DR: We have a long way to go towards repaying our servicemembers for their contributions to our society. Employers can do their part by understanding the powerful talent pool waiting to be leveraged, and SHRM makes it easy with a FREE training.


I grew up surrounded by veterans. And that's not as "beautiful" as it sounds, except when it was.

My dad and his peers are/were of the Vietnam War era. My dad joined the Navy out of high school to avoid being drafted and to hold onto some kind of control over his life, and came home with his own demons from his experiences. He, and many others, returned to a community that actively did not support him at all, despite many of them being WWII and Korean War veterans/families themselves.

A few years later, when I was in grade school, he went to college as a "nontraditional student" (pesky thing, that) and fought a new battle, again immersed in an environment that did not approve, understand, or support him and those like him. (Some things haven't changed much, but that's a whole other post!)

So he created his own community, building a peer-to-peer counseling program as part of his academic journey in human development/psychology, recognizing the power of belonging well before we had nifty acronyms to describe it. He also became the liaison for the local law enforcement departments and regularly got called in when a vet was losing a battle with PTSD and something horrible was going down.

The peer-to-peer program was exceptionally successful, but it still wasn't "sexy" in the 80's to support Vietnam veterans. When they lost their gathering space in town, my dad brought the program to our home, a mostly off-grid goat farm in the woods of Northern Wisconsin, and many of those veterans became like family to me and my five younger brothers.

I'm confident we grew up hearing stories no children should hear. I'm also confident we grew up seeing how sometimes just finding "that place" is enough to change the entire trajectory of a life for the better, even if that life winds up being cut short.

I watched the men I called "uncle" struggle with PTSD and all the challenges with that, things like Agent Orange and shrapnel in their bodies and other related physical health nightmares, and a society that neither respected them nor, frankly, really wanted them around. I went with my dad to visit them in the hospital (as often for mental health issues as anything else), and attended more than a few funerals when the struggles became too much. And I listened to those (sometimes wildly inappropriate) stories, and even then saw how even the folks who weren't wrestling with mental or physical health issues were being battered by isolation.

And even as a teenager, I could see the incredible human potential in these people, just waiting for the faintest opportunity to blossom into something incredible.

When I decided to join the Navy myself after high school, those same guys (at least the ones who were still around) took it upon themselves to offer some really good (if sometimes really intense) advice, and huge heaps of support and love. They were a little protective when I married a Marine, but you know... uncles are like that. ;) They desperately wanted me to have a better experience than they had. After all, I was "theirs", and when we belong in community, our well-being matters to everyone.

While some of the conflicts America has embroiled itself in in subsequent generations have been 'sexier' and had a smidge more public support, as a veteran myself I continue to see waves of my peers, and yet more waves of my kids' (Army servicemembers... yeah, we're a house divided! iykyk...) friends and colleagues battered by the same exact issues.

Some of that is, I believe, unavoidable. We ask truly terrible things of our servicemembers, combat-related or otherwise. But the lack of belonging during and after military service? That's fixable. We can, and should, provide the scaffolding for a good life when people come home. That includes better community services, better awareness, and better support for our military, military spouses, and veterans.

I hear a lot of hand-wringing over hiring veterans or military reservists, or military spouses. I appreciate the challenges inherent in those groups. I also recognize a WHOLE lot of bad data and skewed perceptions in the stories people share when explaining their reservations, so let's be crystal clear: Hiring PEOPLE means bringing human issues into the equation.

The specific challenges differ, but they are always part of the story. This is one of the reasons I'm a strong advocate for trainings like the Veterans At Work certificate program offered by SHRM. This program helps debunk some of the most common misconceptions around the military talent pool, and also helps build more understanding and bridges the gap between military experiences and how they transfer to civilian workplaces. Spoiler Alert: there are more parallels than you might expect. As we put our Memorial Day stuff away for another year and look forward to the weeks ahead, I hope we remain open to opportunities to create belonging in our spaces, whether they are work-focused or otherwise. The humans in our circles (hint: that's us, too) will benefit tremendously.



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