A Soldier’s Letter, Unopened and Unread

5615283857_36bac4645a_z

To the men and women in the armed forces, thank you for serving our country. The sacrifices you make are more than I will ever truly know.

I just listened to a re-airing of a 2012 NPR interview with Brian Castner, author of The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows. Castner served as commander of Explosive Ordnance Disposal units in Iraq. The entire conversation is well worth listening to, but one part that jumped out to me was when Terry Gross asked Castner about a letter he’d written.

When groups visited us on the mission field, we’d have them write letters to themselves before they left, and we’d mail them the letters several months later. The idea was that the notes would be a reminder of what they had felt and experienced—sort of an encouragement to their future selves. We also think this is a great thing to do with missionaries who come off the field as a way to help them process the changes that they are going through.

Castner’s letter is one he wrote to his sons before he went to Iraq, a letter that they were to read if he didn’t come back, a letter that still sits in a safe, a letter that now frightens him. It’s not always easy to get a message from the person you used to be.

“You haven’t read it since you’ve gotten back,” says Gross, “and you don’t even remember what you wrote. So I guess I’m wondering why you kept it, and yet why you haven’t read it.”

Castner replies,

You know, as a bomb tech, you don’t spend a lot of your life being scared, but I’m scared to read that letter. I don’t want to read it, because I don’t know what I put in. And I’m afraid that it’s going to just be full of bravado and flag and country and this is my great purpose and a lot of the things that I felt that just don’t make a lot of sense anymore.

I kept it because it is honestly who I was, and either when my sons are older or after I’m gone, it’ll give some insight, I suppose. I feel like I can’t throw it out unless I read it first. And since I’m too scared to read it, it’s still sitting there.

The host on NPR says that Castner recently came across the letter, and he reports that it remains unread.

(“‘The Life That Follows’ Disarming IEDs in Iraq,” “Fresh Air,” NPR, July 8, 2012)

[photo: “Envelope,” by skeptical view, used under a Creative Commons license]

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]