PTSD: a thorny issue as veterans look for work
Mike Liguori returned home after two tours of duty in Iraq with the Marines and slipped into a depression that, at its depths, left him contemplating suicide. But the San Carlos native emerged from the darkness of post-traumatic stress disorder and today feels his life is in a great place.
“The only complaint I have is not having a steady amount of work,” Liguori said. “I want what we all want: a job.”
He has no single explanation why his résumés over the past year largely have been ignored. But Liguori did write a poignant book about his experiences in the military and afterward, and he believes it’s possible the PTSD issue has contributed to why he is still unemployed.
“It’s not like it’s a secret,” said Liguori, 29, who has a Menlo College business degree. “Just Google my name. I don’t know if that gets in the way. But if it is, I would tell those companies, ‘God bless, but you don’t know me and you don’t understand PTSD.’ ”
In the psychological after-effects of a life-threatening event, PTSD is the invisible wound of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One in four recent veterans who has sought treatment at the Department of Veterans Affairs has been diagnosed with the condition.
But the media-driven stigma of the “damaged veteran” also may have become a mostly unspoken reason for joblessness among the post-9/11 generation of veterans.
“There’s a much greater awareness about PTSD than ever, and that’s a good thing,” said Michael Blecker, a Vietnam War veteran and executive director of the San Francisco-based community services agency Swords to Plowshares. “But it’s also a two-sided thing. With all the attention, it’s bad if employers feel like somebody is a time bomb waiting to go off. Why would they bring veterans into the workplace if they believe that?”
Surveys suggest some companies feel exactly that way. A Society for Human Resource Management analysis last year found about one in three HR professionals cited PTSD or other mental health issues as “challenges” to hiring veterans. A report from the Center for a New American Security, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, also released last year, found executives from more than half of 69 leading companies had negative stereotypes about veterans because of concerns about combat stress.
Gwen Ford, head of the San Jose nonprofit Project Hired that helps the disabled, including veterans, find employment, said companies have told her point-blank: Don’t send us veterans with PTSD.
“What they then hear from me is the lecture of their life because it’s illegal to discriminate against someone with a disability,” Ford said. “They are educated very quickly about PTSD and how it probably won’t have any effect at all in their workplace.”
The National Institutes of Health estimates 7.7 million adult Americans suffer from PTSD — often the residual effects of accidents or violent crime.
And mental-health professionals and veterans advocates say the idea of the unbalanced veteran who is a simmering danger to those around him is mostly a pop culture myth created by a litany of movie and television characters such as Rambo.
“Hollywood does a real disservice,” said Sara Landes, a research health science specialist for the National Center for PTSD at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System. “It makes it seem like people with PTSD are likely to do something violent, and it’s just not true. Companies shouldn’t have concerns about veterans having PTSD.”
But Nathan Patterson, 27, a former member of the Army who recently attended a job fair in Walnut Creek, said he has gotten the sense in job interviews that employers are concerned.
“No one likes to be or feel discriminated, so yeah, it doesn’t feel good,” said Patterson, of Richmond.
Known in past conflicts by names such as shell shock and combat fatigue, PTSD manifests itself in an array of symptoms that include anxiety, depression, irritability, social isolation, alcohol and substance abuse, flashbacks and nightmares.
But while violence involving emotionally scarred veterans is rare, the episodes that occur are what the public tends to remember.
In March 2012 there was the tragic Northern California story of veteran Abel Gutierrez, who killed his 11-year-old sister, mother and then took his own life. The Gilroy resident reportedly was being treated for PTSD.
“Whenever there’s a story of a veteran robbing a convenience store and it’s learned that he has PTSD, it ruins it for the 99.9 percent of veterans who are getting help for this,” Liguori said. “Just because you have PTSD doesn’t mean that you are a crazy war veteran.”
Kevin Schmiegel, executive director of the national Hiring Our Heroes program, agrees that companies do need to educate themselves about veterans and mental health.
But, he added, “I see PTSD as less an issue. Yes, there is a stigma and it needs to be addressed because it should not be an issue. But the biggest challenge is that veterans need to be ready to compete in what is still a tough job market.”
Liguori knows that firsthand. He admits that it “boggles my mind” that he has a business degree, has written a book, does public speaking and still finds it difficult to land a permanent job.
But when it comes to the PTSD question, Liguori is ready to bring it up himself in job interviews.
“I’m not going to shy away from it,” he said. “I’m prepared to address that because I believe overcoming this has helped make me a better person.”
Staff writer Gary Peterson contributed to this report. Read Iraq War veteran Mike Liguori’s blog at www.thespiritofwar.com.
By the Numbers
262,000: Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have sought post-traumatic stress disorder treatment from the VA
24 percent: Veterans in national survey who feel companies avoid them because of mental-health concerns
7.7 million: Adult Americans who have PTSD
Sources: Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Employment Challenges survey, National Institutes of Health
7.6 percent: Jobless rate for all Americans
6.6 percent: Jobless rate for all veterans
7.3 percent: Jobless rate for post-9/11 veterans
7.8 percent: Jobless rate for male post-9/11 veterans
4.9 percent: Jobless rate for female post-9/11 veterans
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics’ April jobless report
What is post-traumatic Stress Disorder?
PTSD may develop after a terrifying ordeal involving physical harm or threat of harm. It also can occur after seeing others endure harm. Veterans exposed to combat are at high risk and symptoms often are linked to traumatic brain injury. PTSD can be accompanied by depression, other anxiety disorders and substance abuse. Women are more likely than men to develop PTSD.
Symptoms of PTSD
Hyper-arousal: Feeling of always being “on guard” for danger, difficulty sleeping and maintaining concentration, irritability, easily startled by loud noises.
Avoidance: Staying away from people and crowds. If a veteran was in a roadside-bomb blast, he or she might avoid driving.
Feeling numb: Unable to express feelings, lack of interest in activities you used to enjoy, inability to talk about traumatic event.
Reliving event: Re-experiencing symptoms through nightmares and flashbacks. Smells, sounds, sights can trigger memories of the incident.
Sources: National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health, Department of Veterans Affairs, research health science specialist Sara Landes at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System’s National Center for PTSD