Issue: Veterans’ Becoming Civilians


For military veteran Glen Wheelock Jr., one of the biggest obstacles in becoming a civilian is losing the precise and structured lifestyle he had in the military.

“It was stringent. It was strict. It was calculated. Rigid. We had a time set for everything,” Wheelock said.

Wheelock is one of more than 30 thousand troops trickling back from the war in Afghanistan over the last decade. As they become civilians again, many struggle to adjust to the slower pace of civilian life. Some also cope with post traumatic stress disorder. An estimated 11 to 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Being diagnosed with PTSD can make it hard for many veterans to find jobs, according to James Schmeling, cofounder of the institute for veterans and military families at Syracuse University. Schmeling’s role at the institute is to help veterans find and train for successful careers.

A special focus for the IMVF is polishing the skills veterans learned in service, such as adhering to a strict time schedule and following precise directions, Schmeling said, with the ultimate goal of getting veterans hired – something Schmeling says is vital as more and more troops return home from Afghanistan.

“If we don’t get this transition right now, we won’t get veterans into employment or into financial stability and therefore family stability,” Schmeling said. “We’ll have a long term unemployment problem as we did with some Vietnam veterans.”

The unemployment rate is 9 percent for veterans who served since September  2001, according to data kept by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That was the decade when the U.S. was at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The veterans’ unemployment rate is just under three percentage points higher than the national average.

Hiring of veterans is low partly because many employers tend to stereotype veterans as violent, according to Schmeling.  “Those perceptions definitely affect employment because, when any violent incident with a veteran happens, you get a ton of front page news stories,” Schmeling said.

As members of the military continue to return home from Afghanistan, both the government and education institutions nationwide need to do more to help transitioning veterans, said Bill Smullen a veteran of the Vietnam War and now director of the National Security Studies Institute at the Maxwell school at Syracuse university. Many veterans, said Smullen, need  support services like financial counseling or academic counseling.

Government institutions, like the Department of Veterans Affairs, will have a tough time accommodating returning troops and must look to partner with the private sector, said Smullen. “We as a society have better learn how to accommodate our veterans. These guys have seen and done traumatic things,” Smullen said.

Almost immediately after retiring from the Vietnam War, Smullen chose to pursue his master’s degree at Syracuse University. Educational support programs, he said, were vital to his transition to civilian life. The university provided him with one-on-one academic counseling and opportunities to join various academic clubs that helped him make friends and get to know the community. That’s a model, he said, institutions all over the country should emulate to help veterans.

“We must make veterans feel wanted and important. Like someone cares about helping them get a degree and an education,” said Smullen.

For recent veterans like Glen Wheelock Jr., an important part of succeeding in civilian life would be a public that pays attention to what’s going on overseas and recognizes that soldiers are risking their lives each day. After the Sept. 11 terror attacks in New York City, Wheelock remembered being greeted with hugs and handshakes from civilians at airports. But now, he said, they hardly even keep up with news coming out of Afghanistan.

“Over the course of time, this country as a whole got tired of the war,” Wheelock said.

Wheelock said he spends a lot of time at the American Legion on Burnett Street in Syracuse where he can enjoy the company of fellow veterans who understand his experiences. He orders the same drink every time – a cold white can of Miller Lite – and remembers the camaraderie of serving in combat.

He spent 21 years serving in Bosnia, South Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, to start a new life in Syracuse, he makes the one-hour-and-ten-minute drive from Syracuse to Fort Drum, home of the 10th Mountain Division, each day to work as a training instructor. He also takes electrical engineering classes at night. Keeping in touch with fellow service members – people Wheelock said he considers family – makes his difficult transition much easier, Wheelock said.

“The phrase they always say is brother from another mother.” Wheelock said. “The military is about as close as you can get to that.”

Wheelock has been diagnosed with PTSD. He often has flash backs to battle, he said. That complicates his adjustment, he said, to a less adrenaline-driven life outside of a war zone.

“We were in a unit where we were expected to return fire – to kill,” Wheelock said. “To come back here and kind of just shake everything off and carry on with life is hard.”
(Anna Giles is a junior broadcast journalism and international relations major.)



This entry was posted in Spring 2014. Bookmark the permalink.