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Michael Butcher has applied for at least 25 jobs since injuries he suffered in Iraq forced him to leave the Army three years ago.
“I was even turned down by McDonald’s,” said the 29-year-old San Diego native.
The military is known for developing leadership, adaptability, loyalty and teamwork. But Butcher said when he tells employers he needs time off to see therapists for post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury, they don’t call back.
“They think you are mental,” he said.
After nearly a decade of war, many U.S. military veterans have lived through extended periods of combat stress and the trauma of losing colleagues. Nearly a third of the troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan report symptoms of PTSD, severe depression or traumatic brain injury, according to a 2008 study by the Rand Corp.
Many of these new veterans struggle to find and retain civilian jobs. Not only are they returning to the worst economy in decades, advocates say, but many employers do not know how to accommodate these invisible wounds and worry that they might “go postal.”
“If you are a person with a lost limb, it’s a little more straightforward what you might need,” said John Wilson, assistant legislative director for Disabled American Veterans. “You might need a different kind of keyboard or voice-recognition software to do the typing.”
But employers may not know what to expect from a person with PTSD or a brain injury. The symptoms can include severe headaches, memory lapses, poor concentration, slurred speech, loss of balance, a short temper and anxiety in a crowd.
“These elements can make it a challenge to do everyday activities in the workplace,” said Raymond Jefferson, assistant secretary for the Veterans’ Employment and Training Service in the U.S. Department of Labor. “But there are very reasonable accommodations employers can make to allow wounded warriors with PTSD and [brain injuries] to be high-contributing, high-performing members on the team.”
When the Society for Human Resource Management surveyed its members in June, 46% said they believed post-traumatic stress and other mental health issues posed a hiring challenge. Just 22% said the same about combat-related physical disabilities.