Stephen Lee says some of the scariest parts of his experience serving his country have nothing to do with military combat: "Right now to me, I am far more scared of sitting in an interview room getting interviewed for a job, than when I've had people shoot at me."
A native of Arcadia, Calif., Lee enlisted in the U.S. Army in March 2000. For nine years, he worked as an intelligence analyst and officer in north Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan. "Oh! And along the way I got married and had kids," Lee says, beaming.
After he left the service in 2009, Lee, now 32, came to Madison to attend the University of Wisconsin. In May, he completed his final semester of coursework in political science.
Alongside his responsibilities as a student and parent, for two years Lee also served as Wisconsin's state director for the Student Veterans of America, and was active in its campus chapter, UW Vets for Vets.
Lee's accomplishments are testament to his work ethic, as well as to the resources and encouragement provided by fellow student veterans. He is among the 30 percent of veterans in the civilian labor force who have a bachelor's degree or more. But, for Lee, having a diploma has not been a guarantee of employment.
As he continues to look for work, Lee worries that he won't be able to support his family. "Getting an internship at some political party's office, getting paid peanuts — if you're getting paid at all — is not going to cut it for me," he says.
Lee is a disabled veteran, but you would be hard pressed to notice the injuries he sustained while in the Army — acquired from chronic strain to his back, knees and ankles.
"I had to wear close to 70 pounds of body armor," he recalls. "Add in another 20 pounds for weapons and ammo. And then add in a 100-pound pack. And then, 'Let's go up and down those mountains!'"
Like other injured veterans, Lee received a service-connected disability rating — a percentage that spells out just how disabled he is based upon the impact of his injuries on his daily activities. Agencies within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs rated his disability at 60 percent.
Lee isn't looking for a job that requires a lot of physical exertion, and doesn't anticipate needing a workplace accommodation. But if an employer were to ask if he had a disability, "I would be upfront with it. I don't know how much that would affect things."
Lee's consideration of what it would mean to disclose his disability to potential employers is one of many dilemmas veterans face. As they demonstrate their qualifications inside interview rooms, job-seeking veterans work to overcome the disadvantages posed by the stigma of disability — whether or not they are disabled.
• • • •
Statistics suggest they have cause for concern.
Gov. Scott Walker's Cabinet on Economic and Workforce Investment estimates that somewhere between 13 and 15 percent of the state's 238,397 veterans in the civilian labor force are unemployed, nearly double the rate of the rest of Wisconsin's 3 million-member workforce (6.8 percent in May).
And if 2011 was indicative of current trends, disabled veterans face even more barriers. Nationally, injured veterans who served in the years following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks experienced higher rates of unemployment throughout 2011 — 12 percent, compared to 9.5 percent of post-9/11 veterans without disabilities.
Greater numbers of military personnel are returning to the U.S. with injuries because more of them are surviving attacks and accidents than those in previous conflicts. In 2011, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that a quarter of post-9/11 veterans had a service-connected disability.
"In these two wars, if someone could get to you after you got injured, you had a 94 percent rate of surviving, which is unheard of in any past wars in human history," says William "BJ" Ganem, who works with disabled veterans at the Dane County Veterans Service Office. "So the amount of wounded that were coming back was shocking at first, just because we've never seen anything like this."
The injuries aren't just physical.
Bob Kelter, chief of social work and chaplain services at the William S. Middleton Veterans Memorial Hospital in Madison, estimates that the hospital treats approximately 5,500 veterans who served in the Iraq or Afghanistan theaters of war.
"Most of them are healthy young people who are going about their lives in an attempt to readjust," Kelter says. "There are a number that have been severely injured, and a number who are struggling with integration because of psychological problems or mental illness problems."
For this latter group, the stress or trauma of military service may leave invisible wounds, which will also need time to heal.
• • • •
'Margaret's" wounds are still healing.
In August 1989, when she was 18, Margaret shipped out to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. Following basic training, the resident of Jasper, Texas, began an intensive program in occupational therapy. Training was so rigorous that, by May of the following year, she had completed the equivalent of a two-year civilian program.
Margaret, who now lives in Rock County, Wis., spoke on condition that her real name not be used discussing sensitive mental health information. She was assigned to the former U.S. Clark Air Base in the Philippines.
During her service there, Margaret says, she was sexually assaulted and harassed multiple times by colleagues. In June 1991, she also lived through a devastating natural disaster — the volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo. She remembers mushroom clouds of ash and ruby bolts of lightning.
Then Typhoon Yunya struck the Philippine coast.
"When it started raining, it would collect with the ash," Margaret says. "It felt like little pellets of cement hitting you."
Clark Air Base was heavily damaged and ultimately closed. Margaret was transferred to Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas, where she worked with mental health patients. It was an education.
"Growing up, when I would hear that someone had a breakdown, I didn't really know what that meant," Margaret says. "I thought that they just kind of went nuts, or just stayed in a room and cried. I was really ignorant. So I learned a lot through my training, and felt it made me more compassionate and understanding."
But Margaret herself became severely depressed. "I remember standing in the bathroom one morning and looking in the mirror," she says. "And it was not me. I didn't know who that person was. I was afraid."
Margaret was honorably discharged for health reasons in 1993. She moved to Wisconsin with her family and began working as an occupational therapy assistant for individuals with developmental disabilities.
Several years later, Margaret started looking for a new job. She recounts being passed up for a position at a physical rehabilitation center in Tyler, Texas. She believes this was because the person conducting the interview had been stationed at her former Air Force base and knew of her disability.
"My resume was stellar," Margaret says. "I had quite a few years of experience. I fit to a 'T' what they were looking for, but I didn't get offered the job. So I really feel that it was prejudice against me. I couldn't do anything about it."
In 2003, Margaret was fired from the last job she held, at a skilled nursing care facility in Wisconsin. She knows that her professional struggles have been consequences of the traumas she endured.
"The military was the first job I lost," Margaret says. "That was the second."
It wasn't until 2003 — 10 years after her discharge — that clinicians recognized Margaret's post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, related to her experiences in the Philippines.
• • • •
Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan often report feeling a stigma attached to their service, from people who think they may be mentally unstable.
Media accounts often focus on veterans coping with traumatic brain injuries or PTSD. And the alleged killing of 16 Afghan civilians by Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, although extreme, raised questions about the mental competency of military personnel who are sent to combat zones for extensive periods.
It is an image that many post-9/11 veterans would like to avoid, especially as they look for jobs.
By far, the most common service-related disabilities among veterans who served after 9/11 are musculoskeletal injuries, reports the Veterans Benefits Administration. For every veteran with a mental disorder, almost seven veterans have injuries in this category, like damaged knees or lower backs. Yet mental disorders like PTSD frequently provoke media scrutiny disproportionate to this ratio.
Kelter thinks stories about veterans who suffer from PTSD illustrate a journalistic priority to grab readers' attention. "There is somewhere written in stone in some school of journalism that 'If it bleeds, it leads,'" he says.
For some, these reports are accurate portrayals of the hyper-alertness, depression or intrusive flashbacks they can face after their discharge. But for many veterans who have coped, the repercussions of sensationalist stories are costly.
Shari Franey, 32, served in the Navy for eight years, receiving an honorable discharge in December 2006. She was deployed in a combat theater but saw no combat. She wasn't injured.
Franey has one more year to go to finish her degree in retailing at UW-Madison. She's experienced difficulty finding jobs in the past. Franey now works as a store management intern with fellow volunteers at a local nonprofit called SERRV that provides sales opportunities to impoverished artisans and farmers.
Franey says colleagues in the Navy emphasized how employers would look favorably on the skills she gained while in the service. They led her to believe that discussing her veteran status would help her gain employment after her discharge.
"I feel like a lot of people in the Navy lied to me. They said 'These skills! Employers want these skills. The military has procedures for everything — so employers will know you can follow procedures.'"
But Franey's experience has taught her that being a veteran can be a hindrance in finding full-time employment.
"I did talk to a job recruiter once who actually said, 'It's not an advantage,'" Franey says. The recruiter suggested that Franey play down her veteran status as she contacted prospective employers.
Part of the problem, she believes, is that veterans may be seen as psychologically damaged.
"I think there is a PTSD stigma if you've gone over there," Franey says. "Especially the Army and the Marines. People view them as going to Afghanistan and Iraq, shooting guns and killing people."
Dr. Shana Bakken-Gillen is the manager of the Veterans Memorial Hospital's Psychosocial Recovery Division, and she sees the stigma her clients face as a reflection of general attitudes toward mental illness.
"There's certainly stigma about mental illness and addiction," she says. "It does influence employers in general when making decisions about hiring an individual."
Margaret can imagine how these concerns could be interpreted by employers.
"Because of the stuff that is being written, if I was an employer and a veteran came through my door, I would maybe have a longer interview and ask more questions to find out, am I going to be wasting my time?" she says. "Is this person going to go crazy in a week and just kinda go off? Are they going to be reliable, or do they drink?"
• • • •
If that is what employers think about veterans, it's not the kind of thing they would say aloud.
At a Veterans Career Fair at Edgewood College on June 8, recruiters smiled as they described the desirable qualities they see in veterans. For many recruiters, hiring veterans reflects both a sense of patriotic duty and excitement for bringing underutilized talent into the workforce.
"We love hiring vets," says Leah Bruno, a human resources representative of the American Red Cross. "They know how to follow the rules."
"They have great training that translates well into disaster services," adds Jamie Larson, who works for the Red Cross as a staffing consultant. "They know how to stay calm under pressure."
Ask employers about disabled veterans, and many stress that they will try to accommodate any disability.
"We haven't had any concerns yet," says Tona Schiele, human resources manager for Johnson Financial Group. "If the person was qualified for the job, we would try to make every reasonable attempt to make it work."
Jacob Gothard, team leader at Madison's Two Men and a Truck, a moving company, agrees.
"If it was some kind of a disability or injury where it's not gonna restrict them physically, and they'd be able to meet all the minimal requirements of what they would have to do on a daily basis, then it wouldn't really affect it at all," Gothard says. "I think we would do what we could to accommodate that injury."
But a 2010 survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 22 percent of human resource professionals believed accommodating combat-related physical disabilities would be a challenge of hiring a veteran. Forty-six percent saw mental illness as a challenge.
Likewise, recently graduated and student veterans say they see a discrepancy between what employers tell the public and what actually happens.
"We're at a point now where most people are savvy enough to not make it seem like that's a hindrance," Lee says. "That being said, I think PTSD is something that scares the s--- out of a lot of employers."
Franey agrees. "I think recruitment's in the media more often now," she says. "And employers want to be able to say they are 'veteran friendly' just like they want to say that they're 'eco-friendly,' that they're 'green.' It's just a fad and how long it's going to happen, I don't know."
• • • •
State officials are also making an effort to help disabled veterans find jobs. Veterans, however, perceive risks in the new benefits that could actually discourage their use.
In his State of the State address this year, Gov. Walker said, "I made employment of our returning veterans the No. 1 mission of our state Department of Veterans Affairs," and on April 4 he signed two bills designed to meet that goal.
The first law, Wisconsin Act 211, stipulates that disabled veterans who are otherwise qualified for any civil service position will be given priority over non-disabled and non-veteran applicants for all civil service jobs, and in greater numbers than previous legislation allowed.
The second law, Act 212, gives businesses up to $10,000 in tax credits over four years for each disabled veteran they hire as a full-time employee, and half that for each part-time hire.
To qualify, a veteran must have a disability rating of at least 50 percent, be receiving unemployment benefits and not leave the employer for the year the credit is claimed. Assuming their disabilities do not prevent them from working, about 6 percent of the state's 238,000 working-age veterans meet the law's criteria.
But securing either benefit requires veterans to disclose their service-connected disabilities.
"You have to kind of raise your hand and let everyone know that you're a disabled veteran in order to get those points — which is a good thing," says Ganem of the Dane County Veterans Service Office. "But then again, it's a bad thing because now there's going to be stigma associated with that person."
For those with visible injuries, the situation emerges early in the hiring process. These veterans would have few, if any, ways of withholding this information from their employer.
"I've got buddies that are missing limbs," Lee says. "It's one of those things where you can't help but notice it."
Veterans with mental health conditions may have greater latitude to withhold that information, but not if they want to receive workplace accommodations.
"I don't want to go and say, 'Hey, I've got this white flag, and if you hire me you're going to get a tax break,'" Margaret says. "Because they're going to be like, 'Hmmm … Why are you eligible for this?'"
While it is illegal to discriminate against hiring disabled veterans, it is difficult to prove that disability status is a primary cause for not being hired. And one common reason discrimination lawsuits are unsuccessful is because applicants "fail to report that they have a disability or request an accommodation," writes the American Bar Association.
For disabled veterans who find themselves in the middle of this Catch-22, the laws that were intended to help them find a job may actually worsen their chances.
But some of the barriers veterans face can come from their personal attitudes toward disability.
John Bechtol, assistant dean of students and veterans affairs at UW-Madison, often encounters students who were injured, yet do not consider themselves disabled. Some of them feel this way, even if their injuries impose limitations
"When they leave the service, particularly if they don't get any disability rating, they think, 'Eh, you know, I'm good,'" Bechtol says. "There are student vets that come in and they're missing digits on their hand and they're like, 'I don't need anything. It takes me a little longer to write but I'll deal with it.'"
Veterans who receive disability ratings may experience shame. Ganem sees the label "disabled" as stigmatizing because it connotes an individual who is unable to contribute to society. Instead, he prefers the term "injured" because it does not convey an inability to work.
"It's a pride thing," Ganem says.
Veterans face stigma particularly in matters of mental health. In 2004, researchers found that less than 40 percent of troops who screened positive for PTSD, depression or anxiety disorders sought treatment upon their return from Iraq and Afghanistan, even though about 80 percent recognized they had a problem. Those who did not seek help cited career damage and loss of respect as deterrents.
During his decades of work at the veterans hospital, Kelter has worked with veterans who feel uncomfortable discussing mental illness. He says this makes it harder to establish veterans' trust and to provide mental health services.
"Returning veterans can perceive the receipt of mental health counseling or treatment as a weakness, as a flaw, as a relegation to what would be known as a 'disorganized soldier,'" he says. "These veterans may feel that the only people capable of understanding them are other vets. They think, 'Everybody else doesn't have that experience, doesn't really know, doesn't get it and there's no sense in talking to you.'
"That's a bad way to start with an employment relationship."
Although he is apprehensive about being able to find decent work for himself, Lee considers himself lucky. Many veterans he knows lack the skills they need for re-entry into the civilian workforce; state administrators often speak of veterans' struggle to translate their military experience into a "civilian language" that employers can appreciate.
Lee knows that veterans face permanent injuries unique to the military, and deal with barriers that not all civilians will understand. When he talks about the heavy military backpack that now makes his knees hurt, he conveys a sense of resignation.
"I'm actually a half-an-inch shorter than when I joined the military," he says.
But Lee also views disabilities as conditions that veterans and civilians share. Human conditions.
"Sure, veterans come back with back problems, knee and ankle problems. But, tell you what. They're not very many people in their 40s that don't have those same exact things."
Bennet Goldstein recently completed his master's degree in medical history from the UW-Madison. This article grew out of a UW-Madison journalism class taught by professor Deborah Blum, in collaboration with the nonprofit, nonpartisan Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.wisconsinwatch.org).