Paul Rieckhoff is the Executive Director and Founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), a non-partisan non-profit group with over 100,000 members around the world. Since founding IAVA in 2004, it has become America’s first and largest Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans organization. Rieckhoff is now a nationally recognized authority on the war in Iraq and issues affecting troops, military families and veterans.
After graduating from Amherst College in 1998 with a degree in Political Science, Rieckhoff coached high school football, worked on Wall Street, participated in the rescue efforts at Ground Zero on 9/11, and served as an infantry platoon leader in Iraq from 2003-2004. In the spring of 2004, Rieckhoff became one of the first Iraq veterans to publicly criticize the war, call for better care for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, and demand accountability from elected officials. In 2006 Rieckhoff also published Chasing Ghosts, a critically acclaimed account of his experiences in Iraq and activism on behalf of veterans.
Question: Are veterans receiving enough training to re-enter the 21st century workplace?
Paul Rieckhoff: I don't think they're getting enough. They are well suited to transition into the modern civilian workplace. They are incredibly web-savvy, they know how to use technology, they're early adopters, they can operate independently or in groups very well, so I would argue they make a really good asset to any kind of company. But they do need help transitioning home.
As an example, if you are a certain type of aircraft mechanic and you're coming out of the Air Force, your military skills are not necessarily validated by the civilian certification process, so you kind of go through that process over again. If you are a certain type of healthcare worker, sometimes if you're a medic in the military you're not automatically recognized for that training in the civilian sector.
So we need to do a better job of communicating military skills into the civilian workplace, and we need to help military veterans coming home communicate their experience and communicate their skills. Sometimes a young squad leader doesn't understand what new employers are looking for in the civilian workplace. He doesn't understand necessarily how to translate being a squad leader in an infantry unit into a sales job. But the skills are very similar. But they need resume workshops, they need transitional training, they need mentorship, and they need a little bit of guidance coming through a pretty tough period. But if you can help them through that sweet spot, I would argue that they're gonna be incredibly successful.
And we see it in our work every day. We've got just over 30 employees; more than half of them are veterans, and they are working on Capitol Hill, they're building web sites, they're organizing local events, they're incredibly entrepreneurial, they have a great skill set. But like any other person entering the work force, they need a little bit of support and stability to get through that tough period.
Question: Are private businesses hesitant to hire veterans, thinking they may have been traumatized by their experiences?
Paul Rieckhoff: Yeah, I think that that's a fight we're fighting every day: explaining to the average civilian employer that this person is not a ticking time bomb. Yes, a percentage of people coming home have mental health injuries. Yes, a percentage of them have been physically wounded. Yes, a percentage of them may redeploy. But they're an incredibly valuable asset. And I think we have to break the stereotype. We have to break the crazy, volatile, Rambo veteran stereotype that was really perpetuated after Vietnam.
And that's really a public education program that's gotta happen. The President needs to help, veterans groups like ours need to help. But the private business community also needs to step up. And there are people like Fred Smith, as an example, who we can trumpet as a leader for our community and someone who can set the bar. But businesses also need to step up and put jobs out.
here was a very important and really historic cover story in Fortune magazine a couple of months ago where there was a young Marine captain, female, named Maura Sullivan who's now an executive at Pepsi, and it was something along the lines of “The New Face of Business.” You know, in tough times, you want people who have been through tough times, and this is the type of tough person you need.
So I think that stereotype is changing. We need a massive call to action on behalf of the President. If he doesn't do that, I think the business community can step up, and the top Fortune 500 companies can say, “We are investing in these young people.” And it's not just charity—it's actually a long-term investment. Just like the World War II generation, they can go on to be our CEO's and our leaders of tomorrow.
But there is a knowledge gap that exists, and that's really at it's core because so few people know us. We're almost like a reality TV show. It's something that seems distant; it seems like somebody else's kids, but if you sit down with some of these young men and women, you're gonna find them to be incredibly dynamic, and incredibly impressive, and trainable.
These folks know how to be trained, they're open to being trained. Beyond the fact that they're punctual, they're gonna have a good haircut and probably shine their shoes. They are gonna have some of those fundamental business skills that may be lacking in other parts of the population.
Recorded August 2, 2010
Interviewed By Max Miller