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Easing return to civilian life a must

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BOSTON—Welcoming a recently deactivated soldier back to work should involve a more elaborate effort than a party and cake to help the veteran reintegrate successfully to civilian life, according to a risk control consultant.

"The military does a great job of turning civilians into soldiers," said Greg Langan, the Mendota Heights, Minn.-based director of risk control services at Arthur J. Gallagher & Co.

But when military personnel return from active duty, "there's no transition" for them into civilian life, he said.

"We, as employers, are going to have to do it" to minimize the risk of problems veterans may face that could disrupt the workplace and lead to workers compensation and third-party liability claims, Mr. Langan said.

Mr. Langan made his remarks during a session at the Public Risk Management Assn.'s 28th Annual Conference, held June 10-13 in Boston.

Citing various government and private reports, Mr. Langan noted that more than 1 million military, National Guard and reservist personnel have rotated through at least one tour of active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan since hostilities began in the two countries. As of early May, more than 178,000 soldiers were on active duty in the two countries, figures show.

U.S. Department of Defense figures show that between 17,000 and 21,000 active duty personnel are released each month, Mr. Langan noted.

Referring to the number of veterans who have returned or will return to their jobs, Mr. Langan said: "That's a lot of thousands per state" on average.

Under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994, employers are required to offer returning soldiers their previous jobs and the pay upgrades they would have received had they not been called to active duty.

But one-third of returning veterans have emotional and psychological problems triggered by their deployment, and only 27% of those reporting problems are getting help from a mental health professional, Mr. Langan said.

In addition, he said, veterans will be suffering from physical injuries, including amputations; impaired mobility; and undetected permanent brain damage caused by multiple concussions, which can result in diminished reaction time, headaches and depression.

"This is what they bring home with them, and this is the kind of stuff we need to understand when we're dealing with them in the workplace," Mr. Langan said.

"You can't cure it with a slap of the glove in the face," he said, referring to a scene from the movie "Patton." In the scene, World War II Army Gen. George S. Patton slaps a soldier's face with a glove in an attempt to snap him out of shell shock.

Employers, however, can help a veteran's transition into civilian work in various ways, Mr. Langan said.

He recommended taking the time to learn what returning veterans have experienced by allowing them to talk about it at their own pace.

Employers also should be patient and allow veterans some time to adjust to changes in the workplace, Mr. Langan said.

Some sensitivity training for employees on how to engage veterans would be helpful, Mr. Langan said. For example, both supervisors and employees should refrain from asking veterans whether they killed any enemy soldiers, offering political opinions on the war and approaching them quietly from behind. In addition, any actions that a supervisor or co-worker takes that involve a veteran should be discussed with the veteran beforehand, he said.

And while a welcome back celebration is encouraged, some veterans will want to keep "a low profile" afterward, Mr. Langan said.

While employers should be sensitive to the difficulty some veterans may have in transitioning back to civilian life, they should not create a unique set of workplace rules for veterans, he said.

For example, employers should spell out their work performance expectations. In addition, employers should be watchful for slow responses and a lack of concentration, which might signal that the veteran has untreated injuries resulting from concussions, he said.

And employers cannot excuse a veteran's behavioral problems—such as workplace violence and substance abuse—that would be unacceptable if displayed by other workers, Mr. Langan said.

Mr. Langan said he is "a fan of zero tolerance policies" on behavioral problems but suggested also showing veterans "some understanding." For example, suspending them and directing them to seek treatment would be preferable to termination, he said.

One session attendee, noting that exceptions to policies would be difficult to defend, suggested modifying strict zero tolerance policies so that they apply uniformly to all employees as they would to a troubled veteran.

Another session attendee noted that collective bargaining agreements with labor might prevent employers from taking such unilateral action.

Employers eventually may get some federal help in transitioning some veterans into civilian life. U.S. Senate Bill 1272—the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program Act of 2007—would establish a nationwide program to assist National Guard personnel in returning to civilian life. The bill, introduced May 2 by Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., would be modeled after the Minnesota National Guard's Beyond the Yellow Ribbon reintegration program.

Mr. Langan also suggested that employers search for reintegration ideas as well as information on their legal responsibilities to returning veterans at www.esgr.org, a U.S. Defense Department Web site.