“Well, do you have PTSD?”
The first few times Robert Ballis heard this question during a job interview, he answered with another question: “Why does that matter?”
The question upset the 29-year-old Army veteran, but sometimes the reply was even worse. “I’d hear from employers who would say, ‘Well, we saw the news of this shooting or that incident of a veteran who had post-traumatic stress disorder being violent, and we need to make sure we’re not bringing that into our workplace,’” says Ballis, now 39.
Variations of that comment all left him pulsing with anger, but he knew he had to gather his thoughts and stay calm. Getting mad, after all, would only prove the interviewer’s assumptions correct.
Ballis completed two tours, first in Iraq in 2005 and then Afghanistan in 2007, as an air-defense artilleryman. He was sidelined for two months early in his career, when a rocket-propelled grenade hit a Humvee near him and sent nuggets of blown-up steel through his left ribcage and lung. The injury was bad enough to stop his heart, but he survived and returned to duty. The difference was that he was now vulnerable to panic attacks, inexplicable anxiety, sleepless nights and flashbacks — all hallmarks of combat-related PTSD.
Dealing with those emotions after his retirement in 2008 was hard, but struggling to land a job put him under real strain, too. He tried explaining to potential employers that PTSD wasn’t just what they saw in the news, but he mostly received blank stares in return. Ultimately, he tried leaving off his veteran status on his resumé altogether. “I thought having a degree and unique leadership skills would help. I was always told that my skills from the military can transfer to civilian life,” he says. “But I actually got more interviews when I didn’t disclose I was ex-military.”
American culture loves showing off how much it loves the armed forces, celebrating veterans on Fourth of July, Veteran’s Day, at sporting events (whether it be with a football-field-sized flag and a fighter-jet flyover, or just a bunch of ugly camo uniforms) and all 31 days of May, which is now officially Military Appreciation Month. Yet veterans coming home from warzones find that the civilian world isn’t actually waiting with its arms wide open — especially if there’s any inkling that the vet has PTSD.
Recent studies suggest anywhere from 11 to 20 percent of post-9/11 veterans suffer from PTSD, and the symptoms and triggers that worsen its effects vary from person to person. Some people get angry, others get anxious, some do both. Some vets with PTSD don’t like being around groups of people. Some can’t stand being alone. A trigger for a panic attack could be something obvious, like a gunshot or firework, or far more subtle, like a foreign object on the side of the road. What many veterans do agree on is that despite more Americans being familiar with the concept of PTSD, the stigma hasn’t faded with most civilians. (Even President Donald Trump recently connected a California mass shooting with the perpetrator’s military PTSD diagnosis and called him a “very sick puppy,” leading to an outcry.)
This means trouble when vets who need the most help creating stable lives back in the U.S. end up shut out by employers who could offer them meaningful jobs with decent pay. While the veteran rate of unemployment has fallen in the last few years, experts suggest the basic data hides a massive problem of veterans who struggle to get by despite holding a job (or multiple jobs). A 2016 report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation noted that 44 percent of veterans chose to leave their first job within a year in search of better opportunities.
Several major companies do have progressive hiring programs that purposefully help vets with disabilities. Far more, however, don’t have a single measure in place to really help, says Vadim Panasyuk, an Iraq War veteran who is now senior veteran transition manager for the nonprofit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). “Veterans who are in treatment for mental health challenges do need some accommodations from their employers, and often those employers aren’t very responsive or understanding of those needs,” Panasyuk says. “And it’s not just veterans with PTSD who have trouble. In general, a lot of employers have very, very low cultural competency when it comes to helping vets. They don’t really understand the value of their experiences.”
As such, many veterans with PTSD take whatever job they can that offers a modicum of stability. Mike, a 38-year-old Army veteran who fought as an infantryman in Iraq’s notoriously deadly “Sunni Triangle,” returned to Long Beach, California, to a marriage that was falling apart and two kids to feed. His PTSD gave him an uncharacteristic temper (“Almost with no provocation,” he recalls) and night after night of insomnia. His lack of a college degree, meanwhile, left him high and dry with most white-collar employers.
“The last couple of months in the military, you’re supposed to spend transitioning and trying to build up marketable skills. I was deployed right until the end, though, so doing that stuff wasn’t an option,” Mike says. “I was behind right out of the gate, and as your basic grunt infantry guy, all I had to market was a strong back and a willingness to do what you told me to.”
That led him to his first job in construction, making $14 an hour to scrape by while juggling midday visits to the local VA hospital. Fellow vet Ballis, who had a bachelor’s degree in sports business and marketing, didn’t fare much better. He interviewed for multiple jobs in that industry, got nothing and settled for a job as a security guard.
Generally, even specialized workers in the military routinely struggle to transition their work experience to the civilian world, says IAVA Chief Services Officer Hannah Sinoway. “For example, a very well-trained combat medic who has operated under pressure often cannot translate that job to passing the test for EMT school,” she notes. “So even before the PTSD issue, there’s a lot that needs to be improved with employers understanding how to make this transition more streamlined.”
The post-9/11 GI Bill has empowered a generation of veterans to go back to school, even if they are already qualified for a litany of civilian jobs, but more hurdles await. Mike went to a local trade school to receive a certificate in surgical tech, with hopes that news of Obamacare would mean more opportunities in the health-care field. By this time, he had learned to manage his PTSD symptoms, but it still felt like going to school was a bit like walking on eggshells. “I had to learn to really watch my tongue. At least in construction, my story about getting into a firefight was no big deal. When you’re in school, that same story raises a lot of eyebrows. Not to mention talking about mental health makes people uncomfortable,” Mike tells me. “I had to watch what I talk about. I had to remember who I was before the Army, and try to become more of that person again.”
So many veterans return to college only to find themselves feeling isolated in a sea of 18-year-olds who have zero understanding of their military experiences, Sinoway says. The longer someone has served, the stranger the culture clash can feel. PTSD can compound this, worsening the anxiety of being back in a classroom or not fitting in. I remember a young Army Ranger that I met while attending summer school at the University of Hawaii, and the way his PTSD symptoms flared up before group presentations and oral exams for our Spanish class. “I’ve shot people as a sniper, and it’s a 10-minute Spanish oral that weirds me out?” Richard would joke to me. But he had a specific aversion to not having clear orders to accomplish — the uncertain subjectivity of public speaking brought real fear to his eyes, and he’d leave the classroom to pace frantically in the hall.
While knowledge of PTSD and resources for its treatment have undoubtedly expanded in the last 40 years, the struggles of this new generation of GIs are familiar to much older soldiers who served in Vietnam. Reddit user AnathemaMarantha (who requested I don’t use any part of his real name) has extensively documented his time as an artilleryman in Vietnam as well as his struggles with PTSD after his service. He traveled from “the jungle to a dorm room” at the University of Colorado at Boulder over a matter of days in 1969, after he was discharged. He was just 22 years old, but nothing felt familiar or enjoyable about college life. Lives were no longer on the line, so he felt little motivation to get up in the mornings or do schoolwork. Mostly, he sat in a numbed-out fog, trying to not to stick out as a veteran and letting his hair grow out to match the anti-war hippies around him.
“As far as getting a job goes, I couldn’t even cruise through school on the GI Bill. I kept dropping out, trying again. Eventually, I found a working class college, Metropolitan State in Denver, that had enough vets enrolled to understand my problems. I graduated from there in 1978 — about nine years of trying to go to college!” he tells me.
Back then, military doctors scratched their heads at the strings of men who walked into their offices with symptoms that ranged from panic attacks to self-isolation. The World War II-era notions of “combat fatigue” were still in use, but nobody seemed to agree on a definition or its legitimacy as a physiological problem. Indeed, when suicidal thoughts pushed him to the VA hospital in 1983, 14 long years after his discharge, AnathemaMarantha says administrators assumed he was trying a disability scam. “So many guys from diverse backgrounds showing the same symptoms. They didn’t treat us, so much as they watched us treat ourselves.”
These days, VA doctors are well aware of PTSD, and offer both group and solo therapy (among other services) to veterans who need mental health care. The trouble is accessing it while juggling school, a job or all three. “You can’t just schedule an appointment when you want. If they call you and say, ‘Hey, we have a time on Friday,’ well, if you don’t take it, you might wait six months for another opening,” Ballis says. “After my security job, I had some small sales jobs but starting at the bottom and working up, well… it just wasn’t working for me because a lot of these employers don’t understand VA appointments.”
The delays and overcrowding at some VA hospitals make matters worse. Mike recalls spending hours at the VA’s mental health clinic waiting on therapy appointments, which meant that he had to basically take the whole day off work. “I remember one day being told by a psychiatrist there that if I wanted good care, I should go elsewhere,” he recalls. (He did, though it required a lengthy bureaucratic battle with the VA to get the organization to pay for a third-party counselor.) And when VA-wide delays happen because of a failure of infrastructure, as with this year’s widespread botching of GI Bill payouts, veterans can end up struggling to pay for school, rent, food and vehicle payments — all things that can exacerbate mental illness, Panasyuk says.
The situation is bleaker for those who don’t get any veterans benefits because they were discharged with a “less-than-honorable” designation due to minor infractions. These soldiers are the first to go when the military chooses to reduce the number of troops with involuntary separation (as the Army began en masse in 2012), and it’s left veterans who deployed without their expected benefits. “When a veteran doesn’t have access to the GI Bill, most often they’re having to compete with college kids when they have a high school degree. That becomes a huge barrier in terms of making money, having a family and getting back to normal,” Panasyuk says.
Even those who work their way to an appealing job can get hit with poor assessments at work because of their PTSD symptoms. Ballis frequently got written up for not being at his desk — the result of flashbacks that left him shaking and choking for a full breath. The only thing that would fix it would be to leave the office, he says, which would then trigger a spiral of guilt over missing work, which then led to sleepless nights, which then led to a worse performance. Sinoway has heard from a number of veteran clients who say they don’t understand their workplace rights, and feel fear about disclosing any kind of information about their health problems. “It’s easy to get afraid, to not say anything, to not seek help because they feel like accessing mental health care will somehow get them into worse trouble,” Sinoway adds. “That just perpetuates things further down the road.”
Ballis today works for a major bank’s credit card fraud department, thanks to a friend who put in a good word and helped smooth the interview process. He now has a manager that he says is flexible and understanding of his PTSD, perhaps because she comes from a military family. This might be more a stroke of luck, though, than an institutional benefit — “I’ve had other managers at the same company who never understood,” Ballis says.
Nonetheless, it’s a big deal that now he feels like an excellent employee who just needs a few simple accommodations to thrive, rather than a liability. Especially in December — the month when he was pierced by steel in a dusty Iraq firefight. It’s the hardest time of the year for Ballis, who admits he sometimes has to disappear from his family for a week or two in order to quell his PTSD. Disappearing from work, of course, isn’t so simple, and there has already been a few times this month when the anxiety has overcome him not long after he got to his desk.
“My manager will say, ‘Just go outside, take an hour or sit in the conference room and relax,’” Ballis says. “And I just get myself back down to where I need to be. I go back in. And I start working.”