"I went from having a sense of responsibility, pride and direction in life, to nothing. It was incredibly difficult," he recalled.
Trained as a paratrooper of the Army's Airborne Infantry Unit, Dan's job involved jumping from airplanes 1,000 feet in the air and parachuting into dangerous combat zones. It's not a role for the faint of heart, but Dan thrived at it. "I worked my way up from supervising a squad of 6 to a platoon of 30+ soldiers," he recalled.
Unfortunately, none of his accomplishments helped him find a job when he returned home. In fact, his military experience put him at a distinct disadvantage with employers who didn't see his service as an asset. Job offers were few and far between. Those he did receive wouldn't pay enough to cover basic expenses for his family of four.
"We were living on food we received from pantries and barely getting by," Dan admitted.
Those highly sought after soft skills he had honed throughout his military career – leadership, discipline, loyalty and drive – would go unnoticed, buried under a sea of military terms recruiters couldn't see past or didn't know how to decipher.
Dan admits to feeling unprepared to find employment upon exiting service. He says he lacked basic understanding of the civilian employment process because he didn't receive adequate job training or career guidance. Cobbling together a resume became a challenge because nobody taught him how to translate his skills and experience into terms civilian employers could understand or appreciate.
"I remember this sense of - now what? How can I get employers to hire me? How does someone trained to jump out of airplanes show they have the skills to acquire a corporate job? Nobody seemed to appreciate my military experience," he noted.
Things most of us take for granted, like conducting a job search or writing a cover letter, only added to Dan's struggles. He even stumbled through interviews because he didn't understand basic interview etiquette.
It never occurred to me that I was hindering my chances by focusing on my group's success rather than my individual contributions."I remember throughout the interview I kept highlighting my success in terms of ‘we.' We did this, we did that. That's what the military teaches you. It's success as a group, not as an individual. The interviewer finally asked me, "What did you contribute?" It never occurred to me that I was hindering my chances by focusing on my group's success rather than my individual contributions," Dan said.
These problems, Dan believes, could be lessened with additional resources and support from both the military and civilian community before veterans leave service.
"The military prepares you for battle. They indoctrinate you into their way of life, but nobody teaches you basic things like how to write a resume or how to translate all the skills and training you received in the military to get yourself a job. Private employers have a lot of opportunity to make a difference in this space too, just by offering resume preparation classes along with the military," Dan remarked.
Dan also sees opportunity for Human Resources professionals to approach veteran skill sets from a different direction. Rather than focus on the few technical skills they may not have, they should consider all the intangible character traits they have acquired throughout their years of service.
"Hire a veteran and you get a leader who works well across teams, can handle pressure, make tough decisions and will get the job done," Dan remarked.
Dan hopes his story illustrates the struggles many veterans face after service transition, including dealing with the stigma of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He cautions employers against assuming the worst about the disability.
"Let's not be afraid to discuss PTSD. We are not lunatics waving guns around. We are men and women who have served our country. We have our struggles. We have our bad days like everyone, but we can be as productive as anyone. In fact, having a job lessens the symptoms of PTSD," Dan commented.
Things turned a corner for Dan once he began focusing on what he could do, rather than on what he couldn't do. He sought professional counseling, which helped him develop better coping mechanisms and break unhealthy habits. As a result, he felt less isolated and alone. He began re-connecting with his community, and started his own non-profit business to help other veterans suffering from the effects of PTSD. During this time, he also made the difficult decision to start his career over.
"I took personal responsibility. It wasn't my fault that I ended up in that position, but it was my responsibility to change it. I realized that if I continued looking backwards, I would miss out on what was right in front of me," he remarked.
Dan applied for and received a job offer at Fed-Ex unloading trailers. He says a short statement in the ad acknowledging military experience caught his attention. It was a gamble to start over, but one that would pay off. Fed-Ex eventually promoted him to operations coordinator. This promotion paved the way for other opportunities, and, in 2017, he accepted a job as the operations manager of Goodwill of Southeastern Wisconsin's E-cycle business.
"Goodwill gave me a job with purpose and meaning. I felt a part of a community again. That's what all veterans want," he stated.
Dan's life isn't perfect, but he is proud of how far he has come and strives to help veterans with similar struggles.
"It took a lot for me to get from where I was to where I am now. If I see a veteran struggling, I try to show them they can get past it. I have made that my personal goal in life," he acknowledged.
Dan's story highlights some of complexities facing veterans amidst service transition. These challenges also provide opportunities for civilian employers to re-evaluate their veteran recruitment and outreach efforts. Consider implementing these initiatives into your veteran recruitment, outreach and retention strategies to help other veterans avoid some of the challenges Dan experienced:
- Leverage internal military veteran employees to help recruiters understand military distinctions and provide context around military skills and abilities. Invite them to share their stories to gain insight into how transition from military life impacts their return home.
- Provide training to management on PTSD and other topics impacting veterans. Educating others can reduce the stigma those with PTSD often suffer.
- Evaluate your interview process to be certain it doesn't unintentionally exclude disabled veterans.
- Train recruiters to understand military terms, to recognize those transferable skills sets (leadership, discipline, team work, etc.) and to appreciate veteran communication styles.
- Connect with Local Veteran Employment Representatives (LVER) and disabled veteran outreach specialists.
- Develop a niche employment webpage geared towards recruitment of veterans. Include military themed graphics and post stories that highlight veterans in your workforce.
- Incorporate military friendly language into your job postings. Statements like "Equivalent military experience will be considered" can go a long way with veterans, if you are genuine.
- Accept invites to speak with veteran groups (Student Veteran Association, LVERs, VA, etc.) and encourage them to tour your facilities.
- At a minimum, list all jobs lasting 3 or more days (non-executive) with the state Employment Service Delivery System (ESDS).
- Recognize veterans in your workforce on Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Activities can be small or large scale. Have your CEO write a "thank you for your service" letter or share employee military stories in your company newsletter. Hold a celebration luncheon for employees and invite former members of the military to speak.
- Support veteran causes. Collect donations for a local veteran's shelter or volunteer at a VA.
- Establish Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). Many veterans gravitate towards employers who foster a sense of community because they take pride in a shared experience.