This post is an original article written by veteran Garrett Wilkerson on LinkedIn. Garrett is a combat veteran, an english major, and client relations coordinator for a medical staffing company. His post here is reprinted by permission. Garrett’s original post can be found here.
I am four years removed from a six year enlistment in the United States Army Infantry. The further removed I am, the more conflicted I become regarding my status as a veteran. More specifically, a combat veteran faced with both the humdrum of corporate office life, and the cloud of curiosity I feel that my coworkers project over me.
Let’s roll this back a bit.
Once leaving the Army, I enrolled in school and began pursuing a degree in English. After three and a half years of seemingly endless essays, mid-terms, finals and a few odd jobs, I was prepared to enter the civilian workforce armed with my honors degree and a wealth of military experience. I’d be a shoe-in for a multitude of middle management jobs, right?
Six months deep in “Thanks but no thanks” emails, phone calls and voice mails, I began questioning my value as a job candidate. Was my time in the military worthless? Did choosing English as a field of study wind up being as useless as many people assured me it would be? Both felt true. Just as the plug on my G.I. Bill was about to be pulled and so with it the supplemental income it provided, all hope seemed to be lost. On a whim, my wife reached out to one of her old high school friends at a travel nurse staffing agency and presto chango, I had a job. I made my debut in the civilian workforce as a “Client Relations Coordinator”.
This is when things got weird.
In my first week on the job I was bombarded with industry and corporate phrases like “do you have the bandwidth?” and “let’s table this for later”. These phrases were just as foreign to me as military jargon like “Roger that” “Hooah” and “I’m tracking” would’ve been to them. The cultural divide between office life and my time in the military was isolating and ostracizing. I used social cues to nod or respond appropriately to these phrases but ultimately felt like an outsider that was late to the party.
But wait a second…
Just as I was starting to wrap my head around these industry terms and phrases, a coworker responsible for training me began using questionable language when explaining things to me. He would say things like “if you feel like you’re going to have a moment, you can take a walk around the building to cool off”. Do people here have “moments”? Is that a thing? On another occasion he told me that if I ever felt overwhelmed with all of the new information, I should be mindful to not “blow up” on other employees. I thought this was strange given that this coworker knew very little about me or my temperament, outside of the fact that I was a veteran.
And then it clicked.
When my coworker offered up a story of some friends of his that had served and their explosive personalities after separating, I knew that he was blanketing this experience over all veterans . This made me uncomfortable. I already felt like an outsider in the workplace, and this experience was validating those emotions. I couldn’t confront the coworker directly in fear that the confrontation might be deemed a “moment”. Weeks later an opportunity to speak to our supervisor privately presented itself and I regarded that moment as a perfect time to address how I felt like I was being perceived by my coworkers.
It just made things worse.
In a closed door setting, I expressed to my supervisor that I felt like my coworker had the wrong idea about me. That the coworker was projecting his view of veterans on to me and that it was making it challenging to do my work to the best of my ability. My supervisor claimed responsibility by telling me that when I was being considered for the position, he had my coworker ask my wife’s friend if I was “one of those weird veterans”.
I was dumbfounded and speechless.
The only response I could find in my shock-stricken mind was “well I’m not”. He tried to reassure me by telling me that he knew that now, but that it was important to make sure before moving forward in the hiring process. The blatantly discriminatory meeting came to a close, leaving me with no tangible resolution and a sinking feeling that every coworker in the building perceived me as “weird”.
What is a weird veteran?
From what I gained by reading between the lines of my coworker’s thinly veiled language, a weird vet exhibits explosive behavior akin to Hollywood portrayals of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Weeks later I pressed another coworker on how they perceived veterans and was surprised to learn that he and others had worked beside me while assuming I had killed somebody while overseas.
Can you imagine?
Having a conversation with a coworker when their words begin to muffle out as you process what they may be seeing as they look at you. John Rambo, standing there with machine guns in both hands and a cartoon-like cigar burning in his lips. I found myself injecting child-like references to comic books, video games, and cartoons into work banter in an effort to soften their perception of me.
I had to get out.
But where would I go? I began dedicating every lunch break to my quest for a new job. I went through another round of failed interviews and more “Thanks but no thanks” emails. Just as it had been before, except this time I knew what the problem was. I was a weird vet and who wants to hire one of those? The more intensity I poured into my job hunt, the more insecure I felt about my status as a veteran. I started plucking references to my service out of my resume, while weighting and embellishing the responsibilities I had at my few odd jobs.
On second thought, I had to make it work.
As the weeks eased into months, I started using my lunch breaks to connect with my coworkers on a more intimate level. We would go to lunch and I would detail my combat experiences in an effort to eliminate lurking questions and curiosities they may have had. In someways I felt myself emerging from the shadow of my own experiences. Before long, the corporate lingo that was so foreign to me had become second nature. I relied heavily on my sense of humor and time in college to demonstrate that I was more than just a combat veteran. It took time, but I became part of the team.
But is that what I wanted?
I still dedicate a portion of each week to seeking out my next opportunity. Mainly because I feel like I shouldn’t have to explain away my veteran status or justify it in anyway, nor should any veteran. I am optimistic that opportunity will come eventually, and as a veteran I am confident I can use the skills I learned while in the military, to help find that opportunity.
the label of veteran carries with it an invisible and sometimes uncomfortable burden. It is my responsibility as a veteran to combat the stigma that surrounds veterans so that no former service member walks into a room and is confronted with the notion that they may be a “weird veteran”.