7 Myths Civilian Employers Have About Veterans

There are a lot of misconceptions out there about vets. Some of the stereotypes are negative (dumb, violent, etc.), while others are positive (hard workers, honorable) — but they’re all untrue, like most stereotypes are.

Here we take a look at some of the most common myths about veterans, and how the reality breaks down for real-life servicemen and servicewomen when they get out:

Myth #1: Vets Have Been Trained to Be Mindless Drones

The Perception

 high speed low drag soldier talkingThere’s a common impression out there that the military is all about breaking down your individuality and turning you into just another part of the machine.

That’s based on a very warped perception of training and discipline, and on a lot of pop culture entertainment trends. The stereotype is getting more common, not less, especially in video games (where the player really does just follow the game plot’s “orders” mindlessly, although they’re probably not thinking of it that way as they play).

You’re most likely to notice it in settings where people are being selected for creative thinking skills. Civilians may not say anything explicit, but if you’re routinely the go-to labor and never the guy making decisions, it might have something to do with your prior service. People are looking at you and seeing a dumb grunt that does what he or she’s told.

The Reality

This particular myth is pretty offensive to enlisted troops and officers alike.

It’s absolutely true that basic training (and subsequent training and experience) are designed to get soldiers thinking about the group or the mission, and not about their individual selves. That’s part of what makes the military so good at what it does — you have large groups of people all working toward one goal, rather than serving their own interests.

But anyone who’s served knows that the idea of blank, interchangeable drones is wildly divorced from reality. Everyone in your unit had his or her own personality — some of them better than others. And a lot of time those personalities came through in very vivid, very personalized ways.

The important concern for the working world, though, is that the idea of someone who lacks initiative or creative skills is untrue. Veterans are taught to get the job done, and that involves a lot of thinking on their feet.

When people think of a soldier obeying orders, they’re thinking of orders like “drop and give me fifty” that they’ve seen in movies and on TV. In reality, those orders are more likely to be a complicated series of dynamic objectives, any or all of which can and will change as soon as plans meet reality.

That’s not to say that every veteran is a problem-solving genius — but they’re certainly not trained into some kind of obedient half-stupor, either.

Myth #2: Veterans Are Mentally and Emotionally Unstable

The Perception

 high speed low drag soldier shouting

This is another one that’s almost a cartoon caricature these days: the sweating, shaking vet waking up screaming, or diving for cover at a kid’s birthday party when a balloon pops.

You can get this one from people who are being deliberately condescending (“crazy vets, man”), but you’re more likely to get it from well-meaning people who want to assume you’re wrestling with inner demons even when you’re not.

It tends to manifest as extreme delicacy, lots of repeated questions along the lines of “are you sure you’re okay with this,” and worried glances if you make any sudden movements or look alarmed, stressed, or unhappy.

Because everyone knows that you’ve “seen things” and that you’re a bomb just waiting to go off, right?

The Reality

There’s absolutely no reason to minimize the problems veterans face: some guys do struggle with PTSD and with a number of other mental illnesses or traumas related directly to their service.

It’s a real thing, and it’s a serious thing. It’s not something that can get swept under the rug or “toughed out,” and absolutely the best thing for vets who are suffering serious emotional or mental distress is to get professional help (and to stubbornly plow through the bureaucracy until the VA pays for that help like they’re supposed to).

But that’s not every vet. Even in the guys who are struggling with combat-related trauma of the mental and emotional sort, it doesn’t always take the form of nightmares or flashbacks, and “triggered” episodes set off by a loud noise or a sudden movement are a small minority of cases.

Lots of guys come out of the service perfectly happy, healthy, and sane. Seeing combat doesn’t automatically turn you into a head case. Combat is what we train our servicemen and servicewomen for, and that training’s pretty good. Getting freaked out by it isn’t something to be ashamed of, but it’s not the default either.

The reality is that your average vet is about as likely to be “crazy” in a noticeable way as anyone else. Many do struggle with depression, PTSD, and other issues that may not be immediately visible, but so do plenty of civilians.

It’s never a bad thing to have close friends or family who will notice changes in your behavior or mindset, but no one needs everyone in the world watching for signs of a freak-out in him. The twitching, terrified vet mostly isn’t real — and for the guys who do fit the bill, professional help is the best solution.

Myth 3: Veterans are Combative and Physically Aggressive

The Perception

 high speed low drag soldier firingThe military trains people to kill, and the people that come out of it are by extension trained killers, right?

This is the stereotype of the veteran as a borderline psychopath or worse — a soulless killing machine who’s been pumped up on propaganda and physical training to be a hair’s breadth away from snapping into murderous rage.

Depending on whose fantasies this is part of, it can range from expecting ex-servicemen to be the drunk guy shoving people and shouting at the bar to worrying that they’re going to take a gun into work and start shooting one day.

It’s mostly based on the more paranoid perceptions of the military and imagined fears of a martial state, or in the minds of people who tend to be thuggish and aggressive themselves and who want to blame other people as “instigators.”

You may also run into the slightly different flavor of stereotype where people aren’t afraid of violence from vets, but simply think they’re not trained to do anything but execute brute physical violence.

That one’s more common among managers and HR types who look at your qualifications on paper, and who don’t really have any idea what military service entails or how it’s prepared you for other kinds of work. It’s convenient for them to assume that you’re a one-trick pony, so they don’t question the assumption.

The Reality

A pretty small percentage of any given serviceman or servicewoman’s training actually revolves around using weapons in a combat situation. It’s there, and it’s important, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of military training.

Most service members end up in a specialization of some kind — a trade skill, essentially, although it isn’t called that. Even among enlisted men and women, you’re learning to perform various roles beyond “hold a gun and shoot it at people.”

A lot of those skills end up being applicable to the real world. Not all of them, to be sure, but the purely combat-related skills are generally a minimum.

Equally importantly, military training also involves a heavy emphasis on discipline and control. Everyone’s human, so you see some failures of discipline from time to time, but for the most part veterans are the people you can trust the furthest with physical situations. They’ve had extensive training in how to use force — and how not to use it.

That doesn’t mean you’re never going to see a drunken vet telling people “I was in the Army, man!” and shoving furniture around. It happens, just like civilians get drunk and do stupid things. But it’s not a unique characteristic of military veterans, and it’s not particularly linked to their training or experience.

If anything, the training and experience help keep people who were already naturally aggressive a little more in check than they would have been otherwise.

Myth #4: Veterans are Foul-Mouthed and Noisy

The Perception

 high speed low drag soldier yellingVeterans are like sailors on permanent shore leave: foul-mouthed, inappropriate, boisterous, covered in tattoos, and obnoxious to everyone around them. They shout, they pinch bottoms, and they spit tobacco.

This perception generally shows up in one of two types of people: the chip-on-the-shoulder guys who want to make a show of saying “you military guys are just a bunch of dumb punks,” and the nose-in-the-air guys who don’t want anything to do with a bunch of dirty grunts.

Neither type has much grounding in reality. They’re mostly projecting their own insecurities and personal failings onto a whole class of people. The rest of the perception comes from photos and film of active-duty servicemen in previous years, when swaggering and chauvinistic behavior was typical among all men, not just soldiers.

The Reality

There is footage out there of G.I.s kissing French girls after France was liberated in WWII, and yeah, they look like they’re having a pretty good party. But number one, it was the 1940s and everyone’s behavior would shock our modern sensibilities, and number two, they’d just liberated France for God’s sake. A little shouting and kissing was probably justified.

Veterans in ordinary, day-to-day life don’t tend to shout or make a scene unless there’s a reason to. And if it’s not always a good reason, well, that’s true of civilians too. Getting a little carried away at a party is not an exclusively military vice.

The culture of the military is, admittedly, a foul-mouthed one. Most servicemen and servicewomen swear as a matter of habit. That’s something that’s good to break once you’re discharged, but for most people it isn’t too much of a challenge.

Realistically speaking, a veteran is one of the least likely people at any given job to be cursing where and when it’s inappropriate. For all that soldiers swear in one another’s company, they know when to shut up and smarten up.

There are probably vets out there that never learned to cork their holes and behave when the brass was around, but they’re few and far between. Most vets are just as aware of the need to alter their speech depending on their circumstances as any civilian, if not more so.

Myth #5: Veterans are All Hard-Working, Nose-to-the-Grindstone Types

The Perception

 high speed low drag soldier jumps in the planeServicemen and servicewomen get more done before 9:00 in the morning than most people do during the whole day, right?

Civilians often expect veterans to be superhuman. They assume that any challenge in the civilian world is nothing compared to the rigors of military life. Hiring a veteran, the theory here goes, is getting yourself a bargain-rate Hercules — someone that’s internalized the need to work hard and obediently.

Someone who’s constantly asking you to go the extra mile (especially if he or she isn’t asking it of others) is probably nursing this inflated idea of how hard-working veterans are.

The Reality

Broadly speaking, active-duty servicemen and servicewomen really are hard-working. When they’ve got orders and people to see that those orders get carried out, military men and women are ferociously efficient compared to civilian workforces.

But that’s a cumulative effect, not an individual one. A disciplined force of people self-reinforces — if someone’s lagging, there’s someone else there to pick up the slack. There’s also an enormous amount of institutional pressure not to lag.

None of that is there for veterans. They’re on their own. How hard they work is purely a matter of their own character and motivation. Some will do well and some won’t.

Here’s the reality: some guys entered the service as lazy as a person can come, and the military didn’t make them, personally, any less so. It just whipped them into shape when there was something to be done and people to make them do it.

Many veterans are hard workers naturally, and their standards for what constitutes “hard work” tend to be pretty high, simply because the military is so demanding. But just as many will be happy to take a break once they’re out, and they’re not going to be any more hard-working than a civilian with the same work ethic.

Myth #6: Veterans are Tightly Disciplined and Work Within Strict Boundaries

The Perception

 high speed low drag soldier with a dogThere’s an idea out there that military discipline carries over into everything else — that after years of being taught one right way to fold your shirts and shine your boots, you’re going to be equally strict and polite about everything you attempt.

This stereotype ends up looking a bit like obsessive-compulsive disorder in people’s minds: veterans who shave themselves with a precise number of strokes on each cheek and so forth.

It tends to lead employers to think that you’ll be very methodical about any tasks they assign you. That expectation (which isn’t a particularly reasonable one) can result in people thinking you’ve performed “poorly” simply because you did a job in an ordinary way, rather than in some kind of mechanically precise military way.

It can also manifest as an expectation of stricter behavior. People won’t like to see you displaying human failings, especially emotional outbursts — they have the perception that soldiers are above all that, or have had it trained out of them.

The Reality

Much like work effort, discipline is something that some people took to naturally and others only stuck with because the military enforced it.

The latter tend to run a little wild once they’re discharged, especially when they’re still adjusting to their newfound freedom. They spent years relying on other people to regulate their behavior, so they’re honestly not that great at doing it themselves.

Most of those guys will learn, eventually, but they’re certainly not going to make the kind of super-employee that a lot of bosses are hoping for. It’s all they can do to keep their own lives in order.

If you’re someone that keeps his life very precise and orderly, good on you. But that was probably a personal tendency even without the military training. And if you don’t have that natural instinct, don’t panic. You’re not that unusual. Most soldiers are straightforward and methodical because there are institutional structures keeping them that way — if it came naturally, the military wouldn’t need those structures.

Myth #7: Veterans are Always Well-Dressed and Well-Groomed

The Perception

 high speed low drag soldier with a gunThis one comes straight from recruiting videos and Hollywood.

The default image of a military man or woman is so often someone in a perfect dress uniform (and let’s be honest here — it’s usually a Marine), holding a gleaming wooden-stock rifle and standing stiffly at attention.

It’s a good image. And it’s one that a lot of employers internalize. In their minds, veterans are people who iron their shirts and shine their shoes religiously, following some arcane military ritual that civilians can’t even comprehend to achieve that precision of dress.

The Reality

The razor-sharp dress uniform isn’t even typical for active service members, much less for veterans.

Like other aspects of discipline, a lot of veterans actually let their dress standards slip pretty badly when they’re first out. Some of that is rebellion or experimenting with the new freedom, and some of it is just atrophied skills — someone that hasn’t had to dress him or herself like a civilian for years is going to struggle with the basics.

Uniforms are designed to be easy to keep, well, uniform. Everyone’s is the same, and you’re all trained to maintain them the same way. But that’s not a skill that necessarily has much application to civilian dress (especially for women, who face a much bigger change from uniforms to business dress than men).

A lot of guys get out of the military and promptly let their hair grow and their clothing standards slip. If that’s you, put some thought into neatening it up a little and getting some classic business and business-casual clothes — but do it because it’s good practice for anyone in the job market, civilian or veteran, not because of some inflated standard of appearance for vets.