The Elephant in the Room Is 86

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As I entered the student center, for a meeting with veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan about to graduate from a state university, the men and women facing me slumped in their chairs and gazed at the ceiling. I knew they must be thinking: “This guy not only didn’t fight in my war, or even my father’s war, but in my grandfather’s war! What could he possibly have to tell me about finding a job?” There was an elephant in the room, and he was 86 years old.

I’m at an age when my wife’s reminder to stand up straight echoes my mother’s command from 70 years ago, when I was sprouting to a 6-foot tangle of teenage limbs. My tilt is one more indication that I’m growing old. Some reminders — no longer having to remove my jacket and shoes on airport security lines — are welcome. Others, like a fitness instructor barking: “Everyone, 25 push-ups; Mr. Goldfarb, you can stop at 10,” puncture my self-esteem.

Succumbing to gravity’s tug at 86 is expected. If I fall I’m likely to need a walker. The slightest bump inflicts a purple welt. Names and facts are becoming more elusive. Uncertainty is harder to bear. (I find myself relying on my car’s GPS while driving to familiar destinations.) Despite these and other signs that I’m one of the old-old, I remain determined — so long as I’m healthy and still can — to find doors that open to parts of myself I’ve never explored.

My continuing work as a management consultant opened one of those doors: mentoring former military men and women eager to find their place in civilian society. I had contacted university career centers, social networks, employment recruiters and the Department of Veterans Affairs for introductions to job-seekers willing to discuss their experiences. Some I’ve met with only once or twice; others I talk with at least two or three times a month. I’ve role-played job interviews with corporals and colonels with two objectives: helping them assure employers they are assets, not risks, and translating their military skills to their civilian equivalent.

A growing number of companies are actively recruiting veterans. At the same time, nearly half the veterans surveyed in a report issued by the United States Chamber of Commerce Foundation, in partnership with the Merck Foundation, say they have experienced negative attitudes and treatment in the workplace. Over 40 percent of them leave their first job within a year, frequently citing the difficulty of adjusting to a culture very different from one they are accustomed to.

Other than marriage and fatherhood, nothing shaped my character more than my three years in the Army. The men who trained me had jumped into Normandy. When one of them told me “You are one of us,” it felt like a benediction imposing an oath that I would not disappoint him, then or ever. I could not stand idly by while those who might have worn the same shoulder patch I did were being seen as potential employment risks simply because they had served.

It didn’t take many meetings to convince me that veterans were being perceived through a distorted lens. Like most of us, those who do the hiring have read about the grievous injuries suffered by some combat veterans. But most do not pose threats to those they work with. Combat veterans tell me job interviewers have asked them how emotionally damaged they are, or how many people they’ve killed. A former Army Ranger was asked if he would use his martial arts training in a dispute with a co-worker. I had to find a way to help veterans put an end to this distortion and be seen for what they are: a pool of talent waiting to be tapped.

So there I was, the elephant in the room, standing before a group of graduating veterans, some of whom were already looking at their watches. Hurriedly, before introducing myself, I said, “Every week, I meet with those in positions to hire or reject you, promote or bypass you. They trust me and reveal their unstated, but deeply held, perceptions of you, perceptions you must begin correcting the moment the interview begins. What I’m going to tell you I heard as recently as this morning, not 30 years ago.”

Within moments, eyes stopped rolling; no one was slouching anymore. I reminded them an elephant might follow them to job interviews, where repeated deployments could be seen as having made them employment risks. Skills they had worked for years to master might appear to have no civilian match.

When asked about their military job descriptions, veterans too often respond tersely, as though standing at attention before a promotion board. A sergeant describing his responsibilities told me, “I was an E-7 in logistics at Fort Drum and in Iraq.” A military promotion board would know exactly what this said about the soldier, but it would bewilder most civilian job interviewers. I suggested the sergeant add, “I believe you would call me a supply chain administrator.” That converts bewilderment into interest.

At a job fair near Fort Bragg, N.C., I met a paratrooper about to sit for an interview with a manufacturing company. When I asked if he had a specific job in mind, he showed me a list he’d been given. “What about that one?” I asked, pointing to an opening for quality assurance inspector. He said that he knew nothing about inspecting products. “Do you check your chute before you jump?” I asked. “Are you nuts?” he replied. “Of course I do!” “Then tell the interviewer you’ll inspect his parts as carefully as you checked your chute.” He did, and after follow-up interviews at a nearby electronics plant he entered their training program.

Opening a door leading to new possibilities within myself brought me to veterans, some of them my grandchildren’s age, who are teaching me as much or more than I’m teaching them. I am devoting myself to helping them prove they can be as competent in the workplace as they were on the battlefield. They’ve given me something as well: a way to lead a meaningful life in the years remaining to me.