by Jeff Bryan
On December 18, 2011, the final U.S. military patrol departed Iraq. Along with it went a depth of knowledge regarding Iraq’s people, culture, and networks. But even as American forces leave the region, the United States can continue to utilize the knowledge, experience, and capabilities its veterans have developed over the course of the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan by re-hiring these individuals in new capacities.
The only problem is that, so far, America’s government agencies are not effectively capitalizing on this unparalleled opportunity.
These agencies are missing out. Our junior leaders who served in Iraq and Afghanistan developed expertise and competencies that reach far beyond mere wartime skills. Within the course of a typical day, a patrol leader directs security, acts as a diplomat, and gathers intelligence. These leaders have rebuilt critical infrastructure, negotiated with tribal elders, and developed informant networks. Through counterinsurgency warfare, our veterans have acquired the coveted ability to operate in complex and ambiguous environments. Many of them now deeply understand how developing countries function from the ground up.
Despite these unique skills, the government is not actively recruiting recently separated junior military leaders into its ranks.
Due to the budget deficit, government agencies are undergoing hiring freezes that preclude some of our best, brightest, and most experienced young men and women from continuing their service to our nation.
Two of my Army colleagues are recent graduates of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Not only are these individuals Harvard graduates, but both are also West Point graduates who have served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are some of the best individuals that our nation has to offer. Yet both have been turned down by two separate government agencies and are increasingly considering careers outside of government. It’s not because they do not want to serve, but because they are unable to serve.
I know many other veterans who want to continue serving their nation in the State Department, CIA, or FBI after taking off their uniform. During the government hiring boom between 2001 and 2008, while our veterans were at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the door was wide open for new employees. In 2006, for example, the FBI issued a report stating that in 2001 there were 401 new hires and in 2006 there were 1,610 new hires. Then, after the 2008 financial crisis, our veterans began returning home to hiring freezes. The door to employment was shut in their faces. According to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America 2012 Member Survey, “since government agencies at all levels are shedding, the threat to veteran employment may grow.”
Although most government agencies utilize Veterans’ Preference policies, requiring that they favor veterans who apply to federal jobs, there is insignificant outreach to service members separating from the armed forces. Additionally, the Veterans’ Preference policy does not reward actual experience and accomplishments, but instead rewards disability ratings. For example, a veteran who served for 3 months in Kuwait, but has a service-related disability, would have a higher preference than a veteran who served 30 months in Iraq but has no such service-related disability.
All things being equal between two candidates applying for government positions (age, experience and education), the veteran candidate with significant combat experience should receive preference not out of a proclamation of gratitude, but because that candidate’s experience makes them better equipped to serve and lead in our government. This goes beyond the adage that, “veterans served us, now we must serve them.” The opportunity cost of not taking advantage of veterans’ existing expertise –particularly that of former non-commissioned officers and junior officers — will be a serious detriment to America’s future.
Historically our nation’s veterans have made large-scale impacts within the government. In addition to famous high-ranking military officers, such as Colin Powell and David Petraeus, there are many veterans who separated from the military as unknown junior officers. Many of these individuals found considerable success in their subsequent government service. For example, FBI Director Robert Mueller served as a Marine Corps platoon leader in Vietnam. Former Secretary of State George Shultz served as a Marine Corps artillery officer in the Pacific during World War II. The current U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, James Jeffrey, served as an Army infantry officer in Vietnam.
During a decade of counterinsurgency combat, America’s veterans have successfully led soldiers through what has been dubbed the “graduate level of warfare.” I believe these same veterans will be best equipped to lead in the graduate level of diplomacy, intelligence, and law enforcement. In the future, our government’s foreign policy will demand an understanding of how to improve failed and failing states. This will be instrumental in our mission to deny terrorist safe havens while securing a more just and peaceful world. The government’s failure to recruit veterans with this type of knowledge isn’t just a disservice to veterans, but a disservice to the nation.
The war in Iraq is over and the war in Afghanistan is winding down, leading to a shrinking window of opportunity for the government to act. This is why President Obama needs to direct his agency heads to actively recruit our new veterans — not out of gratitude, but because they are best prepared to lead our nation as we move into an uncertain and complex future.
Jeff Bryan is currently a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is a 2004 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and served two tours in Iraq.