Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan: Fighting the Stereotype War

"Alleged White House intruder is decorated Iraq combat vet" shrieked the military-friendly Fox News when the identity of the fence-jumper was revealed.

Every media outlet, from CNN to The New York Times to Reuters, conjoined "Iraqi vet" to Omar Jose Gonzalez, as if his was one of those trendy multi- hyphenated names. The fact that he might have been diagnosed with PTSD was also trumpeted.

Today, when we celebrate the incalculable sacrifice of our veterans, let us also think about the complexities of "Brand Veteran" in today's media and cultural context.

Here's the question: How do we, as Americans, honor veterans, recognize the daunting physical and psychological problems many of them face - because of work we sent them to do - and also create a context for reintegration, economic opportunity and success?

After all, every time we read a headline about a violent incident involving a veteran, every time we read that 22 vets kill themselves each day, every time we read that
twenty percent of Iraqi veterans suffer from PTSD, every time we read an article with a cruel headline like "Why Veterans Become Criminals - or even about the crisis in VA hospitals - the social construct of vets as dangerous and risky people to know and hire hardens that much further.

Indeed, the media knows that the story of vets-gone-bad is irresistible to the public - and irresistibility in media terms means profit. But every story about one vet makes it harder for a thousand others to get hired.

This isn't just speculation. A study conducted by Syracuse University this year found that: "In general, public perceptions of service members who have been exposed to combat coincide with stereotypes of behavior which indicate mental health instability, substance abuse, and violent behavior."

But it's also deeply paradoxical; the same study also found that veterans have "symbolic capital," and that "... the general public also simultaneously is generally supportive of veterans, favorably viewing their service, presenting a paradox."

When it comes to hiring, though the paradox is sadly resolved in favor of the negative stereotypes. The employment numbers for vets are tragically low; according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistic reports that "... for male vets, ages 18 to 24, the unemployment rate is hovering around 33 percent vs. about 15 percent for their civilian counterparts. For young females, the rate is nearly 17 percent compared with about 7.8 percent for the general population."

The moral question of how we can simultaneously elevate the status of veterans in American culture - as neighbors, friends and potential hires - while at the same time recognizing that their post-war emotional and physical needs must be met, is enormously freighted and nuanced. But it is a conversation that must be had. And I don't hear it.

Yes, it's great to see companies make a real commitment to hiring vets; Starbucks, for example has said they will hire at least 10,000 vets and their spouses by the end of 2018. Last year, Walmart committed to hiring over 100,000. But it can be argued that the very fact that these public commitments are required actually reinforces the negative stereotype of returning vets. If their military service, discipline and expertise made them desirable to employers, no such special efforts would be required. The brand of the returning vet is being damaged by the very efforts designed to help them.

We can't go back. That we know. It is hard to imagine that the apogee of cultural gratitude which welcomed World War II veterans will ever be reached again, especially in the era of the volunteer army. (That's the moral hazard argument against the all-volunteer army, and for the draft.) As Charles Leo, a professor at Pepperdine's Graziadio School of Business and Management wrote, "... those that came back alive were heroes. If there was a choice to make, the veteran would be the one who was hired."

Indeed, that choice was formalized for government hiring in the 1944 Veteran's Preference Act, which mandated that preference be given to veterans. That requirement persisted through 1997, when the Defense Appropriations Act granted preferences to Gulf War veterans, and some medal holders from Bosnia. But no hiring preferences are being granted to veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, including those who endured multiple deployments.

In the seven-Academy Award winner The Best Years of Our Lives the Fredrick March character (Al Stephenson) has returned from the war and makes a loan, without collateral, to a young Navy officer. The bank president tells him to make sure he doesn't do that again; Al's response - defending his decision - captures the emotional swell of an era, and the cultural stature in which vets were held:

"I've had to be with men when they were stripped of everything... except what they carried around with them and inside them. I saw them being tested. Now some of them stood up to it and some didn't. But you got so you could tell which ones you could count on. I tell you this man Novak is okay. His 'collateral' is in his hands, in his heart and his guts. It's in his right as a citizen."

Restoring the stature of returning vets is a complicated brand and messaging challenge. It's about radically changing the perceptions that the Syracuse research identified, and changing it in the teeth of the relentless barrage of media stories that reinforce it.

Here's at least one place to start. The Army spends a ton on recruitment advertising to attract young men and women. I would like to see them take some of that budget and direct it to marketing that doesn't sell the military to young people, but sells the military's vets to the American public.

This effort could change the culture so that hiring vets isn't something that's just a sign of good values but also of good business. Part of the challenge is that for generations, vets have had a powerful group identity. Vets are courageous. Vets are fighting for us. Vets will give their lives for each other.

Now, we need to look at vets non-monolithically. Vets are different. We must deal separately with the issue of our Iraq and Afghanistan vets who need the finest and most loving medical and psychological attention they can get. And those vets whose talent, skill and dedication make them the best possible job candidates in the pool.

To separable the inseparable isn't easy. But it's not nearly as great as the challenges our vets have triumphed over.