Returning Veterans In-Depth Series (Part 3): Dealing With Scar Issues
By PETER ROUSMANIERE, an expert on the workers' compensation industry
The stress on Marine Chief Warrant Officer Jim Flaherty was too much to bear after he returned in early 2008 to his employer, Gaithersburg, Md.-based Sodexo, following two tours of duty in Iraq managing Marine bases and reconstruction projects.
In civilian life, Flaherty, of Sewell, N.J., a bedroom community 20 miles outside of Philadelphia, was a facilities management expert. He was used to handling multiple accounts at once. Multitasking by e-mail, cell phone and Web was second nature. Keeping personal issues separate from professional matters when dealing with clients was de rigeur.
Before his deployments, Flaherty coordinated more than a dozen new food and facilities management installations throughout the Southeast for his employer. His book of business included several blue-chip employers, the Proctor & Gambles of the world.
He would rise at 3 a.m. on a Monday and return home late on Thursday after four-day field trips to client sites. He thought nothing of it, as he was responsible for managing service contracts with clients long after setting up the initial facilities called for in the contract.
Those were better days, before his second deployment to Iraq, from which he returned in 2008.
Now, more than a year after coming back, Flaherty's life has become decidedly more difficult. His stress levels, exacerbated by memory lapses and difficulties with multitasking, got the better of him. Completing life's daily routines are more difficult than they used to be.
His stress levels "just plain peaked."
"Usually, I can work in a high-stress environment and nothing can bother me, but when I started working with clients, the stress level got to me," he said. "Anxiety attacks, panic attacks, breaking down in tears for no reason at all."
After returning to work, Flaherty started bringing home his work-related stress issues; the burden on his family was beginning to build. By last fall the stress had built up so much that Flaherty was ready to quit his job.
He notified his boss of his resignation--by e-mail. Flaherty was ready to leave Sodexo, but Sodexo, even with a global workforce of 125,000 employees, wasn't ready to leave him.
His boss promptly summoned Flaherty to the office and arranged to modify the soldier's responsibilities instead of laying off Flaherty. Flaherty was too valuable to toss by the wayside, even for a company the size of Sodexo.
With his logistical experience gained in the civilian sector, and with his military background of setting up and taking down U.S. military installations in record time, Flaherty was one employee Sodexo was loathe to let go, according to Sodexo managers. If Flaherty couldn't or didn't want to work with clients, there were plenty of other assignments for which Flaherty was qualified.
Sodexo sets a high priority on hiring veterans, according to Angela Guidroz, a personnel recruiter for Sodexo and herself a Marine Corps veteran. "We find in them a strong proclivity for responsibility and initiative at a lesser age than you would expect from the civilian population," she said. "A 24-year-old veteran may have led hundreds of troops and been responsible for millions of dollars in equipment. And they really have such a great sense of integrity."
Flaherty, who was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), was assigned a support role, which narrowed his interactions with clients and his responsibilities with regard to contracting and personnel hiring.
Life hasn't been easy for Flaherty, a father of six, yet he's still one of the lucky ones. He still has many of his mental capacities. Although diagnosed with PTSD and receiving disability income after hurting his back, he's not been afflicted with severe brain injury, which would have kept him out of just about every corporate job.
Flaherty said he was grateful for the way Sodexo has worked with him during and after deployments. "Once I went over there, I was not forgotten," he said. "The senior vice president for facilities management sent me e-mails to inform me of what was going on back at Sodexo. You name it, they sent something to me, every month."
With so many National Guard troops and reservists fighting alongside full-time combat troops, employers are finding themselves having to deal with a new kind of employee: the "workplace warrior," in a phrase coined by the Disability Management Employer Coalition, a San Diego-based association of disability managers working for American employers.
Keeping these workplace warriors informed of the latest developments in the workplace is a critical part of maintaining connections between soldiers and their employers during a hiatus, according to human resources and disability management experts.
It's the "simple things" companies do to support their soldiers that matter, like keeping in touch and informing soldiers about changes going on in the company, but many companies don't understand that, according to Guidroz.
The more companies help their employees during deployments, the easier it will be for the soldiers and the company when they come back, she said. In some cases, companies make it harder for themselves and employees when they don't have formal reintegration programs designed to ease employees back into the workplace.
With it's long commitment to veterans, Sodexo has learned from experience how to ease the transition back into working life, according to Guidroz.
Her company's done this by coaching supervisors and counseling returning troops using experts who themselves are veterans as part of Sodexo's employee assistance program (EAP).
"American corporations were unprepared for the issues soldiers brought back," admitted Guidroz. "Are the EAPs providing counseling? Do employers use mentors? Do they have reintegration teams? The resounding answer is no. I think that there is a heightened awareness that these issues are not going away. We have to take an honest look."
Supervisors are often unaware that, under the federal Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Right Act of 1994, employers must give the soldier his or her old job back, accrue vacation time while the soldier is mobilized, and train or promote workers as if they'd never even left, she said.
Employers must also honor any wage increases and bonuses to which the soldier would have been entitled if deployment had not taken place. In sum, the soldier expects to be made whole, and has a legal right to no less.
In addition, employers have to make reasonable accommodations for former soldiers suffering from the combat stress.
Sodexo, for example, arranged for Flaherty to work internally with operations staff, with little or no client contact, to lower the stress level.
Since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Congress has toughened the 1994 law with regard to employers' obligations to accept returning employees, and lawmakers have amended the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 to allow family members to help soldiers returning from war.
Sodexo's work with veterans hasn't gone unnoticed. In 2007, the company was bestowed the Freedom Award from the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in recognition of its support of employees who are members of the National Guard or Reserves.
September 1, 2009
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