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]


Back in the States after Being Gone for a Long Time (poem)

Back in the States after being gone for a long time,
I’m standing
in the cereal aisle at Wal-Mart.
My list says “bran cereal” with no instructions
on how to pick out the right kind.
I tell the kids to quiet down
and remind them
that “everybody here knows English
so they can understand everything you say

A friend turns the corner and sees us: “Hey!
Long time no see.
Didn’t know you were back.
Look at you.
A little grey around the edges,
but not too bad.
Bet you’re glad to be

He’s describing me like you’d describe a used book:
Slight shelf wear.
Dust jacket missing.
Discoloration on edge of spine.
A few underlined passages and extensive notes in margins.
Some dogeared

We chat about
how big the kids look and about
the new high school being built,
and then he says again,
“Bet you’re glad to be home.”
This time I respond with “Well,
both places have their advantages.”
My daughter shows me a box of
off-brand Fruit Loops,
raising her eyebrows like two question marks.
I shrug my shoulders and she puts it in the

That is the way I feel,
like a used

But deep inside, I’d rather
be a manuscript.
Like one of those manuscripts
that’s been sent to
44 publishers and rejected
44 times.
Then the author’s wife sees it
in the trash folder
on the computer and sends it
in for one last try.
It’s picked up
and becomes a bestseller,
and it’s made into a movie
that wins two or
three Academy Awards.
That’s what I’d like to be, now
that I’m starting over
with this new life
in a new place that everybody says is

Soap and Water for the World

When Ugandan Derreck Kayongo first stayed in an American hotel in the 1990s, he was surprised to see that his partially used bar of soap was replaced with a new one each morning. He told CNN (Ebonne Ruffins, “Recycling Hotel Soap to Save Lives,” June 16, 2011) that he thought he was being charged for it, so he tried to return the new soap to the concierge. After learning that it was complementary—and the old soap had been thrown away—Kayongo, the son of a former soap maker in Uganda, decided to become a middleman to get the used soap to those who need it. In 2009, Kayongo and his wife, Sarah, founded the Global Soap Project. The organization receives used soap from over 600 hotels across the US, then cleans, processes, and remolds it into new bars. As of February of this year, they had distributed over 250,000 bars of soap to 21 countries, including Haiti, Kenya, South Sudan, Guatemala, and Afghanistan.

As a child, Kayongo and his family fled Uganda to live in Kenya, escaping the dictatorship of Idi Amin. There he saw the conditions of the refugee camps, where basics like soap were scarce. According to the Global Soap Project, many places in the world today have the same problem. Their “Soap Facts” page gives the following information:

  • 1.4 million deaths can be prevented each year by handwashing with soap
  • Children under 5 who wash with soap can reduce their risk of pneumonia by 50%
  • 1/3 of the world’s soap is used by the U.S
  • 7 million children have died due to disease that could have been prevented with proper hygiene since 2009
  • 2.6 million bars of soap are discarded daily by the hotel industry in the U.S. alone

Between the two of them, the Kayongos have spent many years in humanitarian relief, working for such NGOs as World Vision, CARE International, Amnesty International, and the American Friends Service Committee. But it is his work with the Global Soap Project that has garnered Mr. Kayongo the most attention, making him one of CNN’s “Top 10 Heroes” last year. He told CNN,

As a new immigrant and a new citizen to this country, I feel very blessed to be here. But it’s important, as Africans living in the Diaspora, that we don’t forget what we can do to help people back at home. It’s not good enough for us to complain about what other people aren’t doing for us. It’s important that we all band together, think of an idea and pursue it.

In February, Christianity Today ran the story “Cost Effective Compassion: The 10 Most Popular Strategies for Helping the Poor” (February 17, 2012), in which the author, Bruce Wydick, had asked “top development economists” to rank development programs for their cost effectiveness. “Soap” wasn’t on the list, but it is similar to the kinds of projects at the top: those that provide direct aid to individuals to meet immediate health needs. Here is the list, starting with the most effective—

  1. Clean water for rural villages
  2. De-worming treatments for children
  3. Mosquito nets
  4. Child sponsorship
  5. Wood-burning stoves
  6. Microfinance loans
  7. Reparative surgeries
  8. Farm animals
  9. Fair-trade coffee
  10. Laptop computers

In the CT blog Her.meneutics, Elrena Evans (“Amid Bribery Scandal, Wal-Mart Contest Attracts Christians” April 25, 2012) wrote that the bottled-water company, HumanKind Water (HKW), had reached the top ten in Wal-Mart’s “Get on the Shelf” contest. The competition had product developers vying for online votes, with the overall winner receiving a contract to sell its item in Wal-Mart’s Web and brick-and-mortar stores. Evans highlighted HumanKind because the companies founder, T. J. Foltz, is a former Christian youth minister and because 100% of HumanKind’s profits go to providing clean water to needy communities around the globe. She also pointed out that the group’s strategy was consistent with the findings of the CTarticle above. HKW started bottling water in October of last year, and Foltz found out about Wal-Mart’s contest only three months later. “Our entire marketing plan got put on hold, and we went all in on plans to try and win this competition,” said Foltz. “Literally a half an hour after I got that e-mail, we were strategizing on how we could try and win this thing.”

And win it they did, as the Wal-Mart corporation announced HKW as the top vote getter on May 3.

So  the next time you’re at a hotel, ask them if they’ve heard about the Global Soap Project, and the next time you’re at Wal-Mart, look for HumanKind Water (it should be there soon).

[photos: “Scavenger Hunt – Bar of Soap,” by Lucille Pine, used under a Creative Commons license; “Soap,” by Sam Sabbagh, used under a Creative Commons license]