Military homecoming is usually a time of immense joy and relief, but for many veterans the weeks that follow are daunting. Each month in Washington state alone, 1,000 service members transition from active duty to civilian life—moving from a structured, often traumatic environment into the looser routines of home. Along the way come unexpected challenges, especially when returning to college or entering the job market.
Jermiha White ’16 served eight and a half years as an Army cavalry scout on the front lines of Iraq and Afghanistan. As a combat veteran, White began experiencing anxiety when he enrolled as a student at Washington State University in 2013.
“Being in a classroom of 400 people with only two exits was kind of stressful,” he says. “The large amount of homework and juggling school and a personal life was extremely stressful.
“In the military, someone comes in every day and tells you what to do. In school, you get a syllabus saying a paper is due in three months. No one reminds you of it and one night you look again and say, ‘Oh, God, it’s due tomorrow!’ It’s something I think many vets face.”
White sought help from the WSU Veterans Affairs Office and enrolled in the “Rucksacks-to-Backpacks” class where he gained the confidence and skills to successfully complete his degree. WSU Pullman, Tri-Cities, and Vancouver are all certified as Partners for Veteran Supportive Campuses, a Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs (WDVA) transitional program.
White must now confront the equally difficult task of finding a well-paying job. He’s not alone, according to WSU Vancouver associate professor of sociology Alair MacLean, who studies the long-term effects of combat on veteran employment rates.
Her research suggests combat veterans experience higher rates of unemployment than those who don’t engage in combat. For example: In 2010, during the recession, the unemployment rate among 18- to 24-year-old veterans was nearly 21 percent compared to 17 percent for comparable nonveterans. The high rates were partly attributed to stigma associated with media reports of PTSD and violent behavior from veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
MacLean decided to put that theory to the test. She designed a study to specifically look at stigma and employment. The results, published in 2014, showed an unexpected paradox—people actually discriminate in favor of combat veterans.
MacLean says stigma is a process that begins with labeling and negative stereotypes, which evolves into avoidance and reluctance to provide help. People are less likely to discriminate against someone, however, if that person has a large amount of social or symbolic capital such as prestige, celebrity, or honor.
That’s the case with veterans. MacLean’s findings showed that although people do often label and stereotype male combat veterans as having more problems with mental health, substance abuse, and violent behavior, they don’t necessarily discriminate.
“People are more likely to want to be friends, neighbors, and coworkers with them than with nonveterans or those who didn’t experience combat,” she says. “Due to the benefits of symbolic capital, combat veterans may be stereotyped but they are not stigmatized.”
Her research has implications for national policy decisions. MacLean has served on several National Research Council panels that provide input on the readjustment needs of returning veterans.
“If we thought employers were discriminating against combat veterans, we might put a lot of money toward trying to stop that discrimination,” she says. “But if we say it’s not discrimination, that money will go toward policies that directly help the veterans themselves, such as mental health services and job training.”
Providing, for instance, WDVA internships like the one White completed last July, which offered alternative “ecotherapies” to veterans dealing with PTSD, depression, and other issues.
“Research has shown that connecting vets to nature is healing,” says White. “We set vets up with the Veterans Conservation Corps, Veterans Farm, and outdoor adventure therapy, all of which teach skills to aid them with their transition.”