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Meeting of November 16, 2011

Written Testimony of Vivian Eng Bendewald,
Program Manager,
Injured Veterans Employment Initiatives,
U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Chair Berrien and Members of the Commission, my name is Vivian Eng Bendewald. I am the Program Manager for the Hiring Our Heroes veteran’s employment initiative at the United States Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber is the world’s largest business federation, representing the interests of more than three million businesses and organizations of every size, sector, and region.

I thank you for the opportunity to discuss the employment of veterans with disabilities. I am an employed veteran with a hearing disability. My work with the wounded, ill, and injured (WI&I) population focuses on transitioning WI&I servicemembers from the military back to civilian life and work. This requires mentorship, transition education and employment programming centered on matching WI&I servicemembers to meaningful long-term careers.

With respect to employment discrimination against veterans with disabilities, a need for increased knowledge - particularly about veterans with “invisible” wounds - rests at the core of this complex issue. I find it best to address employment concerns from three different perspectives: first, from the wounded, ill, or injured perspective; second, from the employer perspective; and last, from the Chamber’s programmatic perspective via Hiring Our Heroes employment initiatives.

Working with the WI&I population, Warrior Transition Units, Wounded Warrior Regiments and private corporate employers has given me a deep appreciation for the immense amounts of effort and good will that exists in support of WI&I servicemembers, veterans, and their families. Companies and organizations have independently established wounded, ill, or injured employment programs while creating communities across industries to best serve WI&I employment needs. These are hopeful measures that help establish a foundation of resources, understanding, and best practices for the employment of veterans with disabilities far into the future.

My hope, in sharing information within the context of the U.S. Chamber’s Hiring Our Heroes employment efforts, is to show that creating, supporting, and sustaining a movement of collaboration through connecting and educating corporate communities encourages best practices for the employment of WI&I servicemembers, their spouses and their caregivers. A better understanding of wounded, ill, and injured servicemembers and their diverse talents and changing abilities as they recover, learn and advance in employment settings, can help to prevent employment discrimination and lead to better outcomes for both employers and employees.

Wounded, Ill, and Injured Servicemembers

Wounded, Ill, and Injured servicemembers compose an extremely diverse population. Several variables contribute to this diversity. First, differing wounds, illnesses, and injuries invariably lead to different capabilities – particularly with respect to employment. Second, recovery rates - the time it takes a servicemember to heal - further define ability differences and the need for different transition and employment approaches. Third, healing outcomes – tied to geographic and social environments, family and friend support structures, availability of opportunities, individual gumption, and a person’s status as a servicemember - play integral roles in the definition and employment success of the WI&I. Finally, servicemembers are a very diverse population to start with, coming from a range of racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, geographic, and educational backgrounds. To understand WI&I employment and any issues that surround it, one must first appreciate the diversity of the WI&I population.

Individualized approaches toward each WI&I servicemember are key to the success of the servicemember’s transition and employment outcome.

For example, consider Josh, a wounded warrior who has an above knee amputation. To Josh, engagement is synonymous with success only when participation is paramount to setting a WI&I veteran up for success. Josh currently serves as an intern with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and attends Georgetown University. Josh believes that mentorship, relevant training or education and available meaningful work opportunities are the keys to successful employment for WI&I veterans.

Wade’s experience also echoes this idea. Wade sustained a severe TBI after his Humvee rolled over an improvised explosive device (IED) in Iraq. This was before TBI’s were diagnosed and transportation vehicles appropriately armored. Wade and his four platoon buddies, all of who were in the blast, miraculously survived. Every one of them was injured, however. They all sustained TBI’s. Today, Wade is the only one who has not committed suicide. Wade’s TBI is an invisible injury. He largely attributes his deliverance from suicide to his enrollment in community college immediately after separating from the Marine Corps. The other four in his Humvee did not do this. Wade created the support network that he believes was key to his successful transition back to civilian life. Wade sought out mentors - maintaining a network of fellow wounded warriors, academic tutors, military leaders and corporate leaders that he could count on for support, encouragement and advice. By keeping mentally engaged, learning or relearning skills, and eventually graduating from George Washington University, Wade gave himself hope. He made use of his environment and his opportunities with the support of a network that understood him. By taking the time to rehabilitate his invisible injury, he regained mental strength, resiliency, and memory in preparation for re-entry into the civilian workforce. Wade believes his four Humvee companions experienced difficult emotional challenges related to the unseen wounds of TBI’s. Wade is currently the director of operations for a private company and will be in Afghanistan for the next several weeks for work. He serves as a mentor for other wounded, ill, and injured servicemembers and veterans.

While many veterans face difficulty transitioning to civilian life, WI&I servicemembers and veterans face many more difficulties with respect to emotional health, physical health, and social integration or isolation – this is the case for WI&I servicemembers with visible and invisible wounds, illness, or injury. For both Josh and Wade health concerns greatly influence their willingness to pursue any opportunity – employment, educational, recreational, or otherwise. For each one, having an individualized plan for the transition back into the civilian world was essential for success.

Employers

I have already mentioned the immense goodwill that exists in support of the WI&I. Employers throughout our nation see the value and need for employing the WI&I, their spouses, and their caregivers. The impact of a servicemember’s wounds, illness, and injury on a servicemember’s future is felt not only by an individual, but also his or her loved ones, and his or her community. Employers understand this, and many have stepped up to support the WI&I as both a corporate social responsibility as well as a corporate civic responsibility.

Both the size of a business and the breadth of an industry impact employment opportunities for the WI&I. Employer needs are tied to finite resources – some more finite than others. Thus, in creating employment opportunities for the WI&I, there is no algorithm to define best practices due to the diversity of the WI&I population as well as the needs and business abilities of a given employer. For this reason, I can only relay anecdotal examples about the employment of WI&I servicemembers or veterans and their spouses or caregivers. It is worth mentioning, however, that the most successful WI&I employment programs within large, medium, and small businesses throughout America include veterans, military spouses, or sons and daughters of military members on their staffs. Program success is measured by the number of WI&I servicemembers that are employed, the longevity of their employment, and the reach of the program within its corporate community as well as the military community.

With respect to the employment of veterans with invisible disabilities such as PTSD and TBI, many employers are still learning. Companies like APi Group and Northrop Grumman lead the way with robust hiring programs for wounded, ill, and injured veterans, and with particular sensitivity to the needs of veterans with hidden disabilities.

For example, APi Group has a mentorship and training program for wounded warriors that prepares and places wounded, ill, and injured servicemembers as construction project managers with the option to cross-train into other APi Group enterprises.

Northrop Grumman’s “Network of Champions” is part of Operation Impact, Northrop Grumman’s employment initiative for servicemembers wounded while serving. Offering meaningful careers to WI&I servicemembers while improving the understanding of invisible wounds through support networks for wounded, ill, and injured servicemember employees, Northrop Grumman has developed one of the leading corporate employment programs for wounded warriors. The Network of Champions establishes a cross-industry reach throughout corporate America in order to ensure that wounded, ill, and injured servicemembers who do not fit employment opportunities at Northrop Grumman are given chances to compete for opportunities at other companies mentored and advised by Northrop Grumman in the hiring of WI&I servicemembers. Neither Api nor Northrop Grumman’s programs are charities. Both entities are businesses with real needs to ensure productivity.

In sum, as with any other population, successful employment for WI&I servicemembers is attributable in part to a veteran’s choice to take the initiative to seek out the multitude of opportunities that are available to them. Private industry efforts can help make that initiative pay off by connecting veterans with good employment opportunities, and by ensuring that they are attuned to the particular needs of WI&I veterans.

The Hiring Our Heroes Veterans Employment Initiative

On March 24, 2011, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched its Hiring Our Heroes (HOH) Veterans Employment Initiative. The Chamber started HOH in partnership with the Department of Labor Veterans Employment and Training Service (DOL VETS) in order to improve local public-private sector coordination in communities where veterans and their families live, or return to after military service. By integrating the U.S. Chamber’s national network of state and local chambers, DOL VETS, the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR) and other strategic partners, and through the implementation of a robust program of hiring fairs, HOH has a unique ability to match servicemember, veteran, and military spouse talents with meaningful private sector career opportunities.

The Hiring Our Heroes veterans employment initiative is composed of four pillars: the 100 Hiring Fairs campaign; the wounded, ill, and injured employment programs; the student veteran internship and employment programs; and the female veteran and military spouse employment programs. The wounded, ill, and injured employment program is closely related to the student veteran employment program because the many WI&I veterans choose to or need to retrain and relearn skills lost through wounds, illness, or injury, or acquire new skills to facilitate employment.

As WI&I servicemembers transition out of the military, employment options can be limited if hiring managers don’t understand the skills associated with a servicemember’s military experience. When coupled with wounds, illness, or injury, the disconnection between hiring managers and WI&I employment candidates can be much greater. By being in a position that can connect military leadership, corporate America and WI&I servicemembers, the U.S. Chamber occupies a pivotal role for bettering WI&I employment opportunities.

The need to concentrate and maintain a standard of consistent communication and messaging to employers as well as the WI&I population is extremely important and a role that the Hiring Our Heroes employment initiative has taken on. By connecting employers with servicemembers at hiring fairs, we help ensure that companies learn about WI&I servicemembers first hand via direct contact, networking, and mock interviews at our hiring fairs. Mock interviews are standard at Career Opportunity Days and HOH WI&I hiring fairs. Additionally, a great deal of outreach is involved in bringing new companies to the network of employers that understand and support WI&I employment needs at Career Opportunity Days. Partnering with veteran service organizations that provide transition, resume, and interview training is just one way to improve candidate viability while decreasing chances for employment discrimination.

Conclusion

At this time, our experience in the Hiring Our Heroes program tells us that employers do not intend to discriminate against wounded, ill, and injured servicemembers where hiring is concerned. Rather, there is an overwhelming show of support to help employ wounded, ill, and injured servicemembers. The challenge lies in harnessing this good will into well communicated, disability accessible, and meaningful long-term careers for wounded, ill, and injured servicemembers, their spouses, and their caregivers. Maintaining employment opportunities that allow for personal growth and skill advancement avoids stagnation and job stereotyping that is detrimental to any workforce, especially those of wounded, ill, and injured servicemembers with invisible wounds. Long-term meaningful careers and growth opportunities for wounded, ill, and injured servicemembers - in conjunction with productive, employee communities that work knowledgeably and efficiently at corporate missions – benchmark future wounded, ill, and injured hiring practices that the Hiring Our Heroes employment initiative works to standardize, maintain, and improve.