Soldiers Say It's Hard To Return To Civilian Life

Guests

Spc. Nick Colgin, out-of-work veteran
Paul Taylor, executive vice president, Pew Research Center
Gen. Mike Davidson, retired Army major general

It's a rare time in U.S. military history: During the longest period of sustained warfare, members of the military make up just one-half of 1 percent of the U.S. population. With fewer people sharing the burden, many veterans are having a difficult time adjusting to civilian life.

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JOHN DONVAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan. Neal Conan is away. By any measure, Nick Colgin is an American hero. A veteran of the war in Afghanistan, he was awarded a Bronze Star for saving the life of a French soldier under heavy fire.

But being a war hero is only one part of this former Army medic's story. Specialist Nick Colgin, now retired from the Army, joins us from the Waxhaw Studios of Wisconsin Public Radio. Welcome, Nick.

NICK COLGIN: Thank you, nice to talk with you.

DONVAN: And it's great to have you here. And we've heard the side of your story where you saved a guy's life. You were working as a medic. He was shot in the head, and you brought him through that and obviously proving that you know what to do under fire, in that kind of medical situation. You know how to do emergency medical work.

So tell us what happened when you came home and you wanted to do the very same thing as a civilian, and you went out into the job market.

COLGIN: Yeah, while I was overseas I helped save the life of a French (unintelligible) who had been shot in the head, helped save 42 Afghanis from a flooding river, did combat care. I did basically clinic care. And then I get back, I received a Bronze Star and then went to receiving an unemployment check.

And it was a hard dose of reality, and you don't expect that, especially when you're overseas, you're at the top of your echelon with your job, and all that changes. One day I could do my job, and then I get out, and the next day it's like I'd never had any of the accomplishments that I've had before.

DONVAN: So what happened, Nick, when you went out - when you went out into the job market, and you walked in the door, and you told them I'm really good at this stuff, then what happened?

COLGIN: I went out into the job market, and I'm trying to convey to them that, hey, I'm really good at what I do. I'm the tip of the spear at medical care. And they didn't realize that because I lacked the certifications. I could be a medic in the Army, when I get out, it doesn't transfer out. And also, a lot of civilian employers don't understand what it means to be a medic overseas or be a truck driver overseas. They don't realize the qualifications that come along with that.

DONVAN: So why were they telling you that they were not hiring you?

COLGIN: They told me they were not hiring me because just the lack of certification.

DONVAN: You needed your paperwork and some sort of...

COLGIN: You needed the paperwork. You get trained to a high level within your field while in the military, but certifications don't come along with that training.

So all of the work that you did over there, and also here in the States, there's no piece of paper you can come out with and prove in the same way you have a discharge paper, you can't say I'm a trained medic and I can walk into this job?

It depends. Most people come out, you have very basic certifications. Like I had a nationally certified EMTB, which is the most basic-level medical certification you can get coming out. And it's just a small step over a CPR certification to most people.

And so you're not getting the certifications that are appropriate to the level of training you've had.

DONVAN: So where did this leave you at that point?

COLGIN: This left me receiving an unemployment check. It left me - I was trying to - I was injured overseas as well, so I was trying to navigate the VA health care system. It left me severely depressed and unable to care not only for myself but for my wife as well.

DONVAN: And considering what you were under in terms of combat, were you also having some stress, post-traumatic stress?

COLGIN: I had all kinds of issues. And this is back in 2008. I'm still having issues to this day because you try to go out there and get the help you need, a lot of times, but it's not always easy. Some of it's on the veteran, but some of it's also in the system. The care isn't always there, and it's not always to the level that you need it.

DONVAN: So all you want to do is work. You want a job. You do not want to be on the dole.

COLGIN: When I got back, the one thing I wanted to do was go out and get a job. I wanted to go right into the career field. I wasn't asking to be a CEO of a corporation. I was just asking to do what I did overseas. I wanted to be an asset to my community, pay taxes and just - I wanted to be a staple within my community and not a burden on it.

DONVAN: Now, doesn't the Army offer you a transitional process? Don't they sit you down and talk to you about the fact that you're going to be moving into the civilian world and that there are skills that they can teach you and techniques and tips that they can give you about what's ahead for you?

COLGIN: There's a program, it's called TAP, Transition Assistance Program, and the problem with that is, is it's based off the installation level. It's not like when - it's not just one system. It's at the installation level. So each base does it their own way. Each service does it their own way.

And you just go there, they check the box, and you're good to go. They - you don't actually have to sit there in most places, through all the classes. You're not getting the type of resume training skills that you should be getting, everything along those lines.

And especially you're getting veterans that just got back from Iraq or Afghanistan. They may have been back three weeks, and they're trying to get mental health care. They're trying to move back to their hometown, and at the same time, you're trying to teach them how to get a job. It's a big mess of a system.

DONVAN: Do you have buddies in the same situation?

COLGIN: Oh, I've - I hear all the time about my buddies, people I don't even know that contact me. And before I thought it just like at the lower levels, like the E3s, E4s, E5s, like the lower enlisted guys that were having these issues because you wouldn't think that a colonel would get out having employment issues.

But I've come to - I heard from a lieutenant colonel a few weeks ago, and he got out and ended up having to go work basically a government contracting job because he couldn't transition into the civilian sector.

DONVAN: You know, we see the recruiting commercials where, you know, there are young soldiers, sailors, Marines, sitting in front of computer looking at high technology, and the sense you get is you're going to learn a lot here, and what you learn is going to set you up for life.

COLGIN: Yeah, when I went into the military, I remember going like through all my medical training, and friends and family, people within the military, they were always like, oh, you're going to be set when you get out with a job. You're going to be set for life. It's such a smart thing that you're doing, everything like that.

And it lures you into a false sense of confidence. You don't realize that when you get out, the civilian world, it doesn't care what you did in the military, and it really should.

DONVAN: Is that really true? They really don't care?

COLGIN: I don't think it's many times they really don't care. I think it's they don't necessarily know what it means. Like you get a - basically an infantry soldier, he gets out, he goes to the civilian side, they don't know how great his management skills are. They don't know how well his entrepreneurial skills are. They don't know because the military is kind of its own culture.

And veterans have been trying to work to get the civilian sector to realize that they're at the top of their fields in all job skills. They can show up on time. They can manage - if they can make great decisions in combat while they're under fie and keep their cool, then they should be able to handle the floor as(ph) a stock trader.

DONVAN: You know, I mean, you're coming out of this into a terrible economy and competing against a lot of civilians who didn't go to Iraq and Afghanistan. Do you think because of your service that you should be given an edge?

COLGIN: I don't think because of my service I should be given an edge. We're not looking for handouts. We're just looking for an opportunity, to give us a fair shot. And we're definitely not looking for handouts, just the people to realize the skills that we do have.

Like you take the SATs to get into college, and that's basically your entrance exam, your DD214, basically your military paperwork, when you get out, that should be your entrance exam into the career field right there.

DONVAN: I'm trying to get a sense of whether you're angry about this.

COLGIN: I'm not so much angry about it.

DONVAN: Frustrated.

COLGIN: I'm frustrated because it's - I live this every day. I hear about all my buddies that can't get jobs. I'm hearing about buddies I have that have committed suicide, and...

DONVAN: That's literally true? They're...

COLGIN: It's literally true. And I've been working, talking out loud about this stuff for over a year now. I fought when I was overseas, and I think the hardest fighting I've done is coming home. I've heard more talk about suicide in a Shakespeare class I took referring to "Romeo and Juliet" than I've heard about veteran suicide in the national media.

DONVAN: Well, you mentioned the Shakespeare class. What's that about?

COLGIN: I took - I went back and I had to retrain. I got out, and I started taking medical classes, and I was basically having to double-dip my GI Bill. I was paying for classes that I had basically already took. So I got frustrated. I changed my major to English. I'm getting ready to graduate this year. And so that's a good milestone right there.

DONVAN: You can tell many concerned parents out there what you're supposed to do with an English major. What is your plan? It's not necessarily a ticket to employment. So what is your plan on that?

COLGIN: Actually, my - I just accepted a job about a week or two ago. Another big shocking factor was the president gave that speech about how I couldn't get a job. I think I got two job offers just off that speech. And that - you'd think if the president goes up there and says this guy is a great medic, hire him, something along those lines, there'd be an overwhelming response. I believe I got two job offers, and one was from the VA.

But I accepted a job last week. I'm going to be moving to New York to work with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, basically helping veterans out. And there's nothing more rewarding than that.

DONVAN: The bottom line, civilian life hard to reach when you're leaving the military?

Yeah, it's - imagine if you took a civilian and put them in Afghanistan tomorrow. They would have a hard time transitioning. And someone like myself and all the other veterans out there, we basically go right into the military out of high school in a lot of cases. So we don't really grow up on the civilian side.

COLGIN: So we get back, it's hard, and you get depressed, and you're telling people you need help, and you're not getting the help you need, and it's all tied together. You get a veteran that can't get a job, he's just going to be even more depressed. The nightmares, everything's going to be worse. It's all tied in together.

And we're crying out for help or yelling out for help, not handouts, and we're just not getting the help we need. And it's - we're working for it. Like this summer I moved halfway across the nation to sleep on a futon out in New York City with no A/C just to pad my resume, and that's not much of a step up from sleeping on the ground in Afghanistan out in the sun that I did back in 2008 for the 14, 15 months I was deployed.

We're working at it, it's just we can't do it all by ourselves. We need a little bit of help.

DONVAN: Well, Nick, I think you're heard loud and clear on this broadcast, and I want to thank you for joining us. Retired Army medic Nick Colgin has been joining us from Wisconsin Public Radio in Waxhaw. Nick, thanks for your time. Good luck to you, and Godspeed.

COLGIN: Oh, thank you so much.

DONVAN: So if you've served in the military since 9/11 and you've gone back to civilian life, we want to know what got in your way. Tell us your story. Our number is 800-989-8255. And you can also email us at talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

So Nick Colgin, you've heard his story, but he is far from the only returning veteran who is running into these kinds of challenges. When we come back, we'll be talking with Paul Taylor, who has done a survey and has some numbers on this. This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan.

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DONVAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm John Donvan, sitting in for Neal Conan. We're talking about the challenges that many veterans face when they return from civilian life, and we were listening to Nick Colgin talk about his issues returning from Afghanistan, skilled as a medic, unable to get a job even as an EMT when he got back home.

We know that it's not just - we know that it's not just Nick Colgin because a survey has been done by the Pew Research Organization, which shows that there is actually a growing divide between military and civilian life. And we want to talk about that survey now by bringing in Paul Taylor. He is executive vice president of the Pew Research Center in Washington. He's joining us from his home in Bethesda, Maryland. Paul, it's nice to have you joining us.

PAUL TAYLOR: Thanks for having me.

DONVAN: So you heard him talking about his struggle making that transition to civilian life. What else have you heard from veterans?

TAYLOR: Well, it's a very powerful story he tells in part because it's not just his story. We did a survey early fall, around the time of the 10th anniversary of the start of the Afghanistan war, our longest war in our history fought by the smallest share of the population ever, just one-half of one percent at any given time in this last decade has been in the armed forces. We've never done a war quite like this.

And that's one of the reasons I think there is a distance between those who have served and those who haven't, there's a gap in understanding. But we talked to more than 700 post-9/11 veterans. We also talked to 1,200 pre-9/11 veterans. We also talked to the civilian population.

On the post-9/11 veterans, a few things stand out. They are enormously proud of their service; 96 percent say they're proud of having served. Ninety-plus percent talk about the rewards of service, just as Nick had. It's made them more mature; it's taught them how to work better with other people; it's given them skills, 70-plus percent say it's given them skills that will help them succeed in a job or career after the military.

DONVAN: Or so they thought.

TAYLOR: Or so they thought. But then there is the downside. And of the post-9/11 veterans, 44 percent say they have had difficulty readjusting to civilian life. When we asked the same question of pre-9/11 veterans, only a quarter, only 25 percent said that.

Thirty-seven percent of post-9/11 veterans say that whether they've been officially diagnosed or not, they have suffered from post-traumatic stress. Just 16 percent of pre-9/11 veterans say the same. So this has been a difficult homecoming for this generation of veterans. Part of it, as you discussed earlier, is that they're coming home to a very tough economy where unemployment - we know the national unemployment rate is about nine percent.

But the unemployment rate for young adults, those in their late teens up through their early 20s, is more than double that, and the majority of post-9/11 vets, they're in their 20s while they serve. Most of them are in their 20s when they come home. So they're facing a very, very tough job market to begin with.

And then as Nick suggests, there may not be a full understanding in the civilian job market of the special skills that they have acquired while serving.

DONVAN: Paul, do you have a sense of whether there's actually a negative on vets? Are they fighting any kind of, I don't know, image problem, anything like that?

TAYLOR: No, I mean, this is one of the things that's so interesting about this survey is that the public, frankly, is fatigued with these wars. The public no longer supports these two wars. And frankly, the public isn't paying as much attention to these two wars.

But the public draws a very sharp distinction between the wars and the warriors. They are enormously proud of the warriors. And some people remember back in Vietnam, it too was a long and controversial war, and by the end, most of the public thought it was a quagmire and a mistake, and a lot of the returning veterans of that generation felt like some of the negatives that the public felt towards the war, you know, they felt themselves on coming home.

I don't think that's the case. This generation of civilians, 90-plus percent says we're proud of the guys who serve. Seventy-five percent say we thank them. More than six in 10 say we've tried to something to help them or their family. So I think it's seen very much as a positive, but there is a gap in understanding.

We asked the veterans, do you think the American public sort of understands what it means to serve in the military? Do they understand the rewards, and do they understand the burdens? Eight in 10 of the guys - men and women in the military say no, the public doesn't get it.

We asked the same question of the public, and about seven in 10 said you're right, we don't get it. So there is just a gulf in understanding.

DONVAN: Including in knowing what they can do, what they've been trained for, what their skills are and how much pressure they have worked under, which has been tremendous.

TAYLOR: I think that's right.

DONVAN: All right, I'd like to go to some callers now, and if you have a story about your own struggle, obstacles that you have faced returning to civilian life, we want to hear your story. Our number is 800-989-8255. And I want to go first to Jonathan(ph) in Traverse City, Michigan. Jonathan, welcome.

JONATHAN: Yes, hi, thanks for taking my call.

DONVAN: Sure. Jonathan, tell us your story.

JONATHAN: Well, I served in the Army, and I was actually activated from the Individual Ready Reserve. I don't know how familiar people are with that, but basically I was not doing anything actively in the military and was individually taken and assigned to a unit that went to Iraq.

And I served about 10 months over there and came back, and the thing with being from the Individual Reserve was that there was no unit to come back to. You know, when we were done, they just sent us back home, and we didn't come back with the people we served with, we didn't really have the kinds of support systems...

DONVAN: Jonathan, what would you say you wanted to do? What was your goal when you came back home?

JONATHAN: My goal was to kind of go back to normal life, and I found that very difficult. I was fortunate, you know, I had a family and a good job when I left, and when I came back, I just wanted to go back to that, you know, have my life back.

DONVAN: So Jonathan, was the - were the obstacles to going back to normal, were they inside you because you had just been ripped from that normal world, sent overseas, then brought back, were those inside you, or was the world that you returned to not ready to bring you back in?

JONATHAN: No, the world was very ready. It was the inside things that were the issue. And, you know, I was diagnosed fairly early on with post-traumatic stress disorder. But I was also, you know, I put in for a traumatic brain injury because I was involved in a vehicle crash and had a blow to my head and was, you know, taken to the hospital for treatment and that while I was gone.

And I found that, you know, the VA sent me down for an examination for both of those, for the PTSD and the TBI, with a neuropsychologist who diagnosed me with both of them and said that I did have a TBI related to that accident. But the VA - while they approved the PTSD has been fighting me for about three years now trying to say that I don't have a brain injury. And that's just made it really hard to get the appropriate treatment and kind of caused a lot of other problems for me.

DONVAN: And so like Nick Colgin, you're also finding it hard to work, I'm assuming.

JONATHAN: Yeah, I've actually had to stop working and go into a rehabilitation program just to get me back to the point where I can go back to work.

DONVAN: All right, Jonathan, I want to thank you for sharing your story with us. And I also want to thank Paul Taylor for joining us and bringing us some numbers and telling us that this is actually quite a large-scale issue. Paul Taylor is the executive vice president at the Pew Research Center who edited and co-wrote parts of the report "The Military-Civilian Gap: War and Sacrifice in the Post-9/11 Era."

I want to turn now to another guest. General Mike Davidson is a former assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the National Guard, and he wrote the book "Victory at Risk: Restoring America's Military Power, a New War Plan for the Pentagon." And he's joining us from Louisville, Kentucky. Mike, nice to have you with us.

General MIKE DAVIDSON: Hi, John, it's great to be here.

DONVAN: I have a question. I've been looking at an online newsletter, which I think also exists in paper form, called Civilian Job News. And it's a newsletter that's actually put out for vets to help them navigate back to the civilian world. And what I find interesting in this, the tone of the advice that's given to the vets makes it sounds like there's such an enormous cultural gap between the military world and the civilian world in that they're giving advice to vets, for example: don't be too military in your job interviews.

And figure out a resume that doesn't overly stress the military. And where does that come from? I mean, are we really such two separate worlds in terms of culture, working culture, that a vet needs to be a little bit concerned to not look too much like a vet?

DAVIDSON: Yes, we are separate worlds. It's a hard road to ask those vets, the returning vets to go down. But more importantly, I think, John, these guys are an overlooked asset that the country needs badly, and we're leaving that asset on the shelf. We're not trying to reconnect our military to our citizens. And as a result, there are terrific guys like Nick and Jonathan out there trying to do the right thing, they have the right skill set, but who have not been able to connect the dots.

DONVAN: So are there not programs already set up in the military? Nick mentioned the Transition Assistance Program, which has been, I think, in place since 1990. That's plenty of time to be up and running. Is that not working?

DAVIDSON: It's not, and the problem is not with the soldiers. And the problem, oddly enough, is not with the Pentagon or the Veterans Administration. We have fundamentally isolated our military from our people. It's the first time in our history we've ever done that. And until we re-tether our military to our people, there are some specific things we can do on that. But until we do that, there's no amount of TAP programs or any other program that's going to bridge that gap.

DONVAN: Paul Taylor was talking about that very fact, that so few Americans are actually in the military now, that that exaggerates that cultural divide, whereas after World War II, for example, many, many of the people who actually owned businesses and were doing the hiring were veterans themselves. And so does that make sense to you that 50 years ago, coming back from the Second World War, a vet could go and get a job more easily, number one because there were more jobs, but number two because the person doing the hiring knew who he was talking to?

DAVIDSON: And they shared a culture. And right now, our kids coming back share very little culture with whoever is making the job decision.

DONVAN: All right, let's go to another caller. I'd like to go to Jerry in Tucson, Arizona. Jerry, thanks very much for joining us.

JERRY: Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

DONVAN: Sure.

JERRY: I was a 16-year veteran between the years of '68 through '84, and I was serving as a Navy corpsman, saw service off the coast of Vietnam, Naval ship - Naval hospital ships, field service medical facilities. That's when I saw...

DONVAN: So, like, Nick, you were a medic then, basically.

JERRY: Yes, sir.

DONVAN: And were you able to put those skills to work when you came home, and did you want to?

JERRY: Well, yes, I did want to, and indirectly, I did. Let me just go a little further to say, during my service, I saw and did things that most RNs today will never see in their lifetime careers, and I did them successfully. But when I got back to the States, the best I could hope for was CNA, which is a Certified Nursing Assistant, without going to further nursing training or medical training. And the other thing was, the military itself kind of - I won't say dumped me, but put me on the back shelf.

I had some psychiatric problems as a result of some of my experiences. I spent several months in a psychiatric unit in the military hospital. When I got out, I was unable to continue my medical duties, so they had me serving as a master-at-arms and doing all sorts of, you know, unessential things. And finally, they wanted to give me, for my last four years, some little obscure duty station out in the mid-Pacific, and I said no and got out. And since then, I've, you know, I did other medical facilities, even caring for my own late wife, and finally just started my own business as a landscaper here in Arizona and...

DONVAN: So you're a landscaper. So the...

JERRY: Yeah.

I'm assuming you didn't know landscaping when you were in the military, especially in the Navy.

Oh, no. No. No, I did not.

DONVAN: So it didn't transfer for you. It did not translate here.

JERRY: No, not at all.

DONVAN: Do you feel that that was a wasted opportunity for you?

JERRY: In some respects, yes, although it served me well, as I said, to be of assistance for other people that I've known since then.

DONVAN: Jerry, thanks very much for sharing your story with us. We're talking about the challenges faced by veterans coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq in transitioning into civilian life, much tougher than it should be. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

We're going to be talking again with Mike Davidson. He is assistant to the chairman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in his previous life with the National Guard. And Mike, these programs that you said that exist already in the military, the Transition Assistance Program, give me a day in a classroom. What do you actually do? I'm 23 years old, say I've been and fighting in Iraq, or I've been fighting in Afghanistan for the previous eight months. I'm done with my tour. It's time to leave. I suddenly walk into a classroom to prepare me for civilian life. What happens in there?

DAVIDSON: Not as much as should happen. Picture this: If you are doing infantry mission, and just about everybody in Afghanistan is doing an infantry mission, if you're on the road, you're subject to being blown up or killed. So if you are doing that mission, you're going to bring some baggage back with you. Maybe it's a lot. Maybe it's a little. Maybe it's easy to deal with. Maybe it's hard to deal with, but we all bring some of that back. You can't fix that in a TAP classroom. So we've got to get our kids a little more attuned to what the civilians are going to be looking for. But it's more important to let the civilians know what we've done. Because if there's 1 percent of us, 99 percent of them, we've got to get our story out...

DONVAN: How do you do it?

DAVIDSON: ...for all of them.

DONVAN: I mean, how do you do it without a line in your resume? You can't put on a line in a resume, I saved a French soldier's life, even though that is critical in Nick's case.

DAVIDSON: It's tough, but let me give you a radical suggestion. This is how I think we can address this problem. Let's do our next nation-building war here in America. Instead of cutting the Pentagon budget drastically, cut it some, but divert some of those funds, some of those people to taking our great soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marine, tapping into that reservoir of values and commitment and sacrifice that we're growing every day in our military. And let's get them out there with a national service or an updated Civilian Conservation Corps redoing the landscape, rebuilding the generation of Americans that we've lost who were not in the military, who didn't get through high school, who were not eligible to serve in the military. The challenge is just as great now as it was during the Great Depression, and we're not moving off toward a solution.

DONVAN: A little bit to what I think you were talking about, we have a tweet from Sarah Handel who writes to us: Of course, there is bias against soldiers. And remember, I asked Nick that, and he said he didn't think so. She writes: Of course there is bias against soldiers. When I exited the Army and graduated college in 2007, employers declined to hire me. They feared PTSD. Does that ring true to you?

DAVIDSON: Of course it does.

DONVAN: Really?

DAVIDSON: And if the others guys were being as candid, you would hear that a lot more often.

DONVAN: There's not very much you can do about that.

DAVIDSON: There is.

DONVAN: What is it?

DAVIDSON: You can re-tether our Army to our people. There used to be a sense of duty among all Americans, that if the country was going to war, you needed to play a part somehow. We've lost that. We need to get it back.

DONVAN: Mike Davidson, I want to thank you for joining us, all of us callers who took part in this part of our program. Coming up on the Opinion Page: an argument that Barack Obama may end up being the worst president for civil liberties in modern history. Jonathan Turley joins us next to explain that. I'm John Donvan. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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