After 12 years in the National Guard, Donna Bachler is still in fighting form. Working out in her Leavenworth, Kan., gym, this one-time drill sergeant can lift as much as many men. She’d love a career as a fitness trainer.
But there’s a problem.
“It’s an issue,” she told me, “when you come into an interview and somebody sees the cane. They see just months off at a time for a surgery recovery or who knows what.”
She walks with a cane – the result of an ankle injury she suffered while on a training march. The disability, she says, has kept her from her dream job. But the ankle isn’t her only struggle. She developed PTSD -- post traumatic stress disorder -- after helping collect remains from the World Trade Center attack.
Neither prevented her from deploying to Kuwait. But she’s been job hunting for a year – and so far nothing but rejection.
“They think we all come back with a sort of Rambo complex,” says Bachler, “that we all have PTSD and we’re all issues and we’re all going to have health issues later on in life.”
She acknowledges that she, indeed, has PTSD, as well as a bum ankle, "but I also have a strong desire to work and a strong desire to serve.”
That desire to work and serve is shared by Erin Lloyd. She was a master-at-arms in the Navy for 5 years -- served in the Persian Gulf during Operation Iraqi Freedom -- earned citations and awards -- then went on to a degree in accounting from Rutgers.
She moved back home six months ago and has been looking for a job ever since. Lloyd recalls the day she learned her military service might be a detriment to finding employment in the civilian world.
“I was going to go see a headhunter,” she told me, “and she called to inform me that she was unable to do an interview because they didn’t really work with somebody with my background.”
They’re called ‘the invisible veterans’ -- women with extensive military experience the civilian world doesn’t seem to value.
Paul Rieckhoff, the director of the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, says it’s a national embarrassment that these women, with leadership skills, discipline -- even shined shoes and a good haircut -- can’t find work.
“There’s an old saying that failing to plan is planning to fail,” he told me. “There wasn’t a plan in place for our nation to really step up and support these women who are coming home.”
Part of the problem is a Veterans Affairs system that for decades was targeted to serve men. Another is that military skills aren’t certified for use in civilian jobs.
Donna Bachler is puzzled by the disconnect.
“We spend a lot of money training very smart people – aircraft engineers, car mechanics, medics. And then we don’t give them a tiny piece of paper that says this is what your military skill means in the civilian world,” she said.
Rieckhoff’s group is trying to change that – and recently deployed Donna Bachler and other vets to Capitol Hill to twist a few arms.
“We’ve got to tell them that these folks are not ticking time bombs,” says Rieckhoff.
“They’re not the stereotype that you might have in your head. They’re incredibly dynamic – they're dedicated – they’re exactly the people you want to hire.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs has been making changes and now has nine programs targeted specifically toward helping women vets prepare for civilian jobs.
Ruth Fanning, the VA’s director of Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Service, acknowledges difficulties in meeting the needs of women.
“The VA has had to make an adjustment as the demographics have changed. Have we taken too long to recognize issues? Perhaps sometimes we have,” she said.
A bill introduced in both the House and Senate, the Hiring Heroes Act aims to improve the employment situation, with – among other things – mandatory participation in the Department of Labor’s Transition Assistance Program, which helps veterans prepare for life in the civilian world, and a framework to certify military skills for civilian jobs. For the moment, Donna Bachler is working hard to improve her qualifications.
A history major, she’s earning her Master's in Fine Arts from the University of California. Erin Lloyd may go back to school for her MBA. “It’s very frustrating,” says Lloyd.
“But, you know, if anything you’ve learned in the military, it’s determination and you keep going.” Remarkably, despite all the determination, leadership skills and discipline learned during wartime, both are weighing whether to leave that military experience off their resumes.
Says Donna Bachler: “It’s something I should be putting on a job application, thinking this is a chip that’s gonna give me a shoo-in on this job – as opposed to thinking about taking it off – going, 'this is the thing that’s gonna cause me to lose the job.' ”