By Elizabeth Williams-Riley, President and CEO, American Conference on Diversity

Between 2011 and 2016 more than 1 million service members are expected to return home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Transitioning veterans not only face difficulties finding civilian employment in today’s competitive labor market, but they’ll also encounter bias and discrimination due to their service-related injuries that require complete living adjustments/changes.

Our nation is in a time of transition, as we were in 1948 when the American Conference on Diversity (ACOD) was established three years after the end of WWII. Workforce demographics are shifting; veterans are returning home differently-abled; there are increased burdens on caregivers. Newly returning veterans, however, face drastic cuts to government-funded services. And because veterans are trained to be self-sufficient, they’re falling under the radar and their much-needed programs are at risk of being slashed. Today’s service members:

  • Experience more service-connected disabilities than veterans of prior wars, because of multiple tours of duty
  • Face severe mental-health issues. More than 90 percent of those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan were exposed to some type of traumatic, combat-related situation
  • Are increasingly people of color and economically stressed. Veterans of color are disproportionately more likely than whites to become homeless, and about half of all homeless veterans are people of color.

Community organizations help fill the gaps. It is our goal to build more awareness and work in collaboration with our community partners to level the playing field for veterans. Earlier this year, our Atlantic County chapter hosted a free program at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey to educate, spread awareness, and promote a better understanding of the needs of returning service members.

“Many of us have no idea of what we can or should be doing to help our veterans transition back into the community. The ACOD event was effective in highlighting the challenges veterans face and the actual supports that exist. This is an area that requires much attention,” says Assistant Dean Laurie Shanderson, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

Through our educational forums, we want to provide a new level of understanding on the opportunities for veterans to access healthcare, employment, and higher education services.

 
  • Harold M. Frost, III

    In looking at the current situation mentioned of a million U.S. service members returning over 2011 – 2016 from Afghanistan and Iraq to civilian life as veterans, perhaps one should not forget the lessons learned from service members returning from 20th-century deployments such as WWII, the Korean conflict, and so on, too. In my case, I served in the Army during the Viet Nam Era.

    My ‘soft’ transition back into the civilian community in the States was hard-wired, with acceptance letters in hand and a decision made for which university offer to accept when honorably discharged from active duty in 1967 so that I could move on to graduate school to earn advanced degrees and then experience finally the hard transition back into the competitive workforces as a full-time employee with a ‘real’ job. All the while I was supporting my little family of wife and child. When I was told after a few years back in school I had maxed out my GI-Bill benefits, I appealed the decision with the local VA center, and won an extension of benefits. Too, I was definitely purpose-driven due in part to a maturity learned in the service which insisted upon a disciplined life. I did not give up after returning to school, and finally surmounted all the hurdles placed in the path of one seeking a Ph.D. in physics. Being able, then, to put “Dr.” in front of my name was not an ego trip so much as the signature of confidence and even boldness that I could also solve all the problems that might then come my way afterwards, whether job-related or related to life blows of a personal nature.

    My mentors along the way treated me as a human person with God-given rights and dignity, and that is the ‘constant’ that remains for service members coming back today with their own sets of challenges. They, too, can surmount all their difficulties as long as at least a few people along the way extend a helping hand, even one of personal assistance for a term of time to help one get back on his or her feet in civilian life that can be a totally different environment than that of a combat theatre of operations. As a matter of fact, at mid career I acquired a major, stress-related disability in the workplace. Along with an unjust mid-career layoff that I could not recover from professionally, I had to reinvent my life yet again.

    This time, in retirement after a long but transformative recovery of cognitive function (such as thinking and working) which had been impaired initially by the major disability, I formed in 2010 my own scientific consulting business and used it as a platform to issue pro-bono technical reports describing results of theoretical physics research I did at home and then conveyed to colleagues. I had to do it this way because I no longer had a paying institutional affiliation nor any federal agency funding for supporting research projects. This additional experience brought to the surface another truth, too, operating in the midst of grave difficulties – even of personal marginalization by and isolation from others – enabling one to not give up hope nor self-respect and to even believe that one can indeed have a good life no matter what ‘curve balls’ or ‘knocks to the head’ life serves up.