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Wednesday July 23rd 2014

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Hiring Heroes

LOCAL DOCTOR WANTS TO HELP VETERANS
BY CHRISTINA EDWARDS

Yellow ribbons. American flags. “Support Our Troops” bumper stickers. You’d be hard pressed to go a day without seeing these or any of the other varied and ubiquitous symbols of Americans’ support of the military. However, once the uniform comes off, many of these soldiers struggle to support themselves.

The unemployment rate for Gulf War-era veterans, which includes those who have served in the armed forces since September 2001, is now reported at 11.5 percent. The overall U.S. unemployment rate is 9.2 percent.

The issue of unemployment among Gulf War-era veterans was recently addressed at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) America meeting in Chicago. CGI was established in 2005 by Bill Clinton with the goal to alleviate poverty, create a cleaner environment, and increase access to health care and education.

Among the attendants at CGI America was Dr. Sunil Gupta, founder of the Retina Specialty Institute, which consists of 10 offices along the Gulf Coast from Mississippi to Florida.

Gupta says that veterans’ unemployment was first brought to his attention a few years ago after his son won an essay contest in which he discussed how to acclimate vets back into civilian life. The problem really hit home after he attended the CGI America meeting in June where he participated in a group discussion entitled “Operation Employment: Empowering America’s Newest Veterans”.

“Transitioning to hiring vets makes sense,” Gupta said. He believes that with veterans already having been trained to work as a team, communicate effectively, document their work, and just having an overall sense of regimentation makes them a valuable asset to any workforce.

So what is it about these Americans who earn praise for their military service that makes it so hard for them to be employed after their term of service has ended? Among the factors are stigmas against Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, inability to effectively translate military skills to civilian tasks, a lack of assistance transitioning from military to civilian life—but mainly, the big, bad recession.

The recession left almost no job market growth in the United States except for the highly skilled workforce. So if a veteran entered the military with little or no work experience and finished his military service at the age of 22, civilian employers may find it difficult to rank him higher than candidates just graduating college at the same age.

Owen Ranck, whose story has been shared by Gupta’s Retina Specialty Institute, says he came home and all he could find for work was working in a movie theater. “This is what I came home to,” he says of his duties of cleaning up trash after serving in Afghanistan’s “Mortaritaville”.

Ranck was asked to begin working for the Retina Specialty Institute after he was referred to Dr. Alan Franklin of the Retina Specialty Institute in Mobile, Ala. by a friend.

“All we can do is take baby steps,” Gupta says of his plans to encourage the hiring of veterans at his and other physicians’ practices in the area.

Ranck’s story, as well as what he learned at CGI America, opened his eyes to what American citizens owe returning vets. “We all know that but don’t take the time to think of what it means,” Gupta said.

The plan, he says, is to train vets upon their release from military service in various medical fields at hospitals and private practices for six to eight months and subsequently find them employment, whether it is in the facility in which they trained or at another medical facility in the area.

CGI highlighted five strategies that would help to improve the job prospects for veterans. These strategies include increasing civilian employers’ understanding of veteran experience and job skills, sharing best practices among veteran-friendly corporations to encourage more universal corporate hiring, identifying ways to prepare veterans for the civilian workforce and encouraging entrepreneurship, networking and mentorship opportunities for new veterans to help with the transition into civilian life, and combating the stigma of veterans being seen as a liability rather than an asset.

Veterans also offer skills that can be easily translated into civilian life. For example, Gupta said that any service member that was trained to analyze satellite images is halfway there to analyzing pattern deviations in a retinal image.

Training in the medical field would mean long-term career benefits and building skill sets that would benefit them throughout their lives. Gupta said that because these newly made veterans are so familiar with technology, they also bring knowledge to the table that would benefit their employers.

Gupta has already started to see some changes in hiring practices in the area’s healthcare facilities at the Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine in Gulf Breeze. He said that he is challenging the Academy of Opthalmology to hire vets at a national level and has encouraged his fellow physicians locally.

On a national level, there is also The Hiring Heroes Act of 2011, a bill currently making its way through Congress, that will act as an aid to veterans entering civilian life.  It aims to provide more job training for veterans as well as to encourage more hiring of veterans. This includes a Transition Assistance Program (TAP) that will be mandatory for all service members leaving the military.

Programs like this, as well as what Dr. Gupta has stated he would like to see in place, can really set the pace for vets to quickly become integrated back into the civilian workforce.

“It’s time for us to step up and take care of them,” Gupta said.