Thanks, Wal-Mart, for Helping Vets in Need

Two weeks ago, my local newspaper had the following headlines on facing pages:

“Wal-Mart Announces Plan to Hire Veterans” and
“Military Suicides Hit Record High in 2012”

At first glance, the stories are unrelated, but deeper in, there is a connection.

(The information below comes from longer online versions of the AP stories printed in The Joplin Globe).

8061662328_e7cf08da2c_nWal-Mart Offers a Helping Hand

In a nutshell, Wal-Mart’s plan is to hire, over the next five years, every honorably discharged veteran who wants to work for it within the veteran’s first 12 months after leaving active duty. The program will start on Memorial Day, and the company projects that it will amount to more than 100,000 new hires.

This should be good news to veterans who have returned from serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. In December, that group had an unemployment rate of 10.8 percent, three percentage points higher than the overall rate in the US of 7.8.

Rising Suicide Rate a Troubling Issue for Returning Troops

Another statistic affecting military personnel is that last year, 349 active-duty troops committed suicide, the highest number since the Pentagon began keeping a more accurate record of suicides in 2001. The military’s suicide rate of 17.5 per 100,000 is still below the rate for civilian males aged 17-60, which, in 2010, was 25 per 100,000. But it’s the increase that is most troubling: up 16 percent over last year’s rate and more than doubling the rate of 2005.

“Now that we’re decreasing our troops and they’re coming back home,” says Kim Ruocco, whose husband killed himself in 2005, between Iraq deployments, “that’s when they’re really in the danger zone, when they’re transitioning back to their families, back to their communities and really finding a sense of purpose for themselves.” Ruocco now works with Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS).

Though the prospect of joblessness is not the most prominent factor in military suicides, it is a factor, being one of the many difficulties that returning veterans face. According to Joe Davis, spokesman for the Washington office of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, some veterans struggle with moving from the intensity of war to adjusting to their home bases, while some have trouble transitioning from their military job to looking for work in a slow economy.

Coming Back and Joining the Un- and Under-Employed

First Lady Michelle Obama supports the hiring plan of the largest private employer in the US, saying, “We all believe that no one who serves our country should have to fight for a job once they return home. Wal-Mart is setting a groundbreaking example for the private sector to follow.”

I agree. Maybe the jobs Wal-Mart is offering aren’t the absolute best (look here for a Stars and Stripes blog post on the plan’s detractors), but Wal-Mart is at least clearing one path for a group that faces so many obstacles.

While I was overseas—as a missionary, not a soldier—I and my coworkers would sometimes say, after a particularly frustrating day, “I just feel like leaving all this and moving back to the States and getting a job at Wal-Mart.”

What I’ve learned since then is that getting that easy full-time job at Wal-Mart isn’t the slam dunk that we thought it would be. Number one, working at Wal-Mart shouldn’t have been our go-to example of the simple, stress-free job we were willing to settle for. And number two, what made us think that ex-missionary’s applications are going to be at the top of Wal-Mart’s stack anyway?

I’ve been back in the US for over a year and a half now, and I’m still looking for long-term full-time employment. I’ve seen that while some employers might value the experiences gained overseas—whether by veterans, missionaries, or other cross-cultural workers—it is more than offset by the fact that those seeking new employment after working outside the US have been out of the loop when it comes to relationships. And, as Nelson Schwartz notes in a New York Times article published this week, being in the loop has become crucial in today’s job market. “Big companies . . . are increasingly using their own workers to find new hires,” he writes, “saving time and money but lengthening the odds for job seekers without connections, especially among the long-term unemployed.”

Schwartz quotes Mara Swan, executive vice president for global strategy and talent at Manpower Group, who says, “The long-term unemployed and other disadvantaged people don’t have access to the network. The more you’ve been out of the work force, the weaker your connections are.”

Being out of the country weakens your connections, as well.

(Anne D’Innocenzio, “Wal-Mart to Hire Vets, Buy More American Products,” NBC News, January 15, 2013; Robert Burns, “2012 Military Suicides Hit a Record High of 349,” The Big Story, January 14, 2013; Nelson D. Schwartz, “In Hiring, a Friend in Need Is a Prospect, Indeed,” The New York Times, January 27, 2013)

[photo: “121006-F-LX370-103,” by Justin Connaher, used under a Creative Commons license]

Aesha’s Complex Story: Fleeing the Taliban and “Spreading Her Wings”

Two years ago, Aesha Mohammadzai, came to the US from Afghanistan after having her nose and ears cut off by her Taliban husband and in-laws. Her face was on the cover of Time and became a symbol for the Taliban’s persecution of women. This past Thursday, the 22-year-old was admitted to  Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to begin the long process of reconstructive surgery.

As stated in the CNN video below, when Aesha arrived in the States, expecting surgery, she was “deemed too emotionally fragile to undergo the procedures.” Since then, her story has been of a young woman dealing with the trauma of her past, adjusting to life in a new culture, and preparing for a future that is far from what she could have imagined as a girl growing up in her home country. Watch “Saving Aesha: Life after Taliban Attack” to get a sense of where Aesha is now.

But stopping with the video will give you only part of the story. If you don’t remember seeing many reports about Aesha since the Time cover, you’d not be alone. That’s because Esther Hyneman, a 73-year-old volunteer with Women for Afghan Women who had become Aesha’s “unofficial guardian,” barred the media from filming, photographing, or interviewing her. This was an effort to protect Aesha from the pressures and harmful influence of fame. In a CNN article from May, Hyneman says,

We’re hoping she’ll spread her wings. But when you’re 20 years old, from a village in Taliban-controlled southern Afghanistan where you’ve never been to school and can’t read or write in your own language, and you’ve never heard of France or Italy or Canada, and you don’t speak the language in the country you’re living in, and you’ve been through hell—it’s a little hard to spread your wings, even if you want to do it.

The author of this in-depth article is journalist Jessica Ravitz, who had to interview those around Aesha to learn her story. Her opportunity to talk with Aesha directly came only after Aesha moved away from New York—and the influence of Women for Afghan Women—to live with an expat Afghan couple in Maryland.

When I first watched the video, attached to a story announcing the start of Aesha’s surgery, I was struck by the progress Aesha has made and the community of people who had gathered around her. I particularly enjoyed the scenes from her ESL classroom, scenes that should inspire anyone considering a future in teaching English. It made me want to find out more, and I’m glad I kept looking, otherwise I wouldn’t have found the earlier article that, while not denying the progress and inspiration, deals more with the complexity and difficulties of Aesha’s life in the US: the tantrums, the “psychologically induced faux seizures,” the borderline personality disorder, the manipulations from a victim who “hurts people before they can hurt her.”

The difficulties are sobering, but they shouldn’t be surprising. What a life of trauma and upheaval this woman has experienced. Now that Aesha’s surgery has begun (actually a series of surgeries that may take two years to complete), we are tempted to smile and move on, happy that she is finally “OK.” But it will take more time and more hard work and more help from wise and compassionate people before everything will be OK. I am grateful for Ravitz’s article. It shows that frustration, disagreement, and disappointment often accompany our best efforts to help others, especially those who have the greatest needs. It makes me glad to know that when we keep trying to make a difference in complex situations, when we do our best even though it’s not appreciated, and even when we loosen our grip to let others find their own way, we are walking on the same path as those who have stepped into Aesha’s life. Their stories, and Aesha’s story, are inspiring, not because they are simple and tidy but because they are complicated and messy and hopeful and real.

(Jessica Ravitz, “Saving Aesha,” CNN, May 2012)