'Hero To Zero' Syndrome: Is This Why Veterans Struggle To Get Jobs?

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Though the unemployment rate remains stubbornly high for Americans generally, data suggest that veterans as a group are having an easier time finding jobs. The unemployment rate among veterans of all ages fell to 6.9 percent in July from 8.6 percent during the same month a year ago, the Labor Department reported in August.

The significant drop in the jobless rate doesn't mean, however, that veterans are finding it easy to transition into civilian jobs. For many, other barriers exists, including adjusting to life in a civilian world that bears little resemblance to regimented existence they became accustomed to.


Sydney Savion understands the psychological roadblocks veterans face. She's a 20-year veteran of the Air Force, who served in both the enlisted and officer ranks. She's witnessed many senior and junior officers, as well as enlisted personnel, leave the military and struggle to find a place as a civilian.

Their challenges included not only adjusting to a new culture and finding jobs with similar stature or privilege, but basic things such as getting used to being called by their first names, rather than "colonel" or "general." Many experience what is known as "Hero to Zero" syndrome. The phrase refers to top performers who suddenly find they're no longer the prized employees they once were because of a sudden change in management or corporate structure. For veterans, the phenomenon manifests after they leave the military and find that in the private workforce, their status is suddenly diminished.

Sydney Savion Camouflage to Pinstripes

With those challenges in mind, Savion has written a book -- "Camouflage to Pinstripes: Learning to Thrive in Civilian Culture" -- about how military members can successfully return to civilian life.

AOL Jobs recently spoke with Savion (pictured), who holds a doctorate in education from George Washington and works as a human-resource consultant, to get her insights in recognizing the psychological barriers confronting veterans and tips for overcoming them.

Q. The book's title, "Camouflage to Pinstripes," may suggest to some that the it's geared toward professionals (those who wear suits to work), but it's written for all former service members, right?

A. Actually, the title is more of an allegory. It's more than just changing clothes. It's the psychological struggle that the individual faces as they take that journey from the military culture to civilian culture. It's not necessarily about jobs, per se. I do talk about marketability and how to prepare ... so the book really is practical advice on how to be successful upon returning to civilian society.

Q. One piece of advice you offer is "to be deliberate about surrendering the past." What do you mean?

A. Many who have spent time in the military have attached their identity and self worth to their rank, position and status in the military. So once they're removed from that context, many experience a very sudden, psychological descent into obscurity. I describe that as a rise and fall of one's ego, which is known as "Hero to Zero" mentality. So people can easily get stuck by resisting to change the way the see themselves and their outlook on life. It's vital for people to be intentional about shedding their attachments to the past way of thinking, doing and being, and discover new ways that are more meaningful and purposeful. Oftentimes what I witness is people struggling with finding something equal to or more glorious than the life they lived in the military.

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Q. Most members of the military enter the service when they are teenagers. What role does that play when deciding to return to civilian life four, 10 or 20 years later?

A. There's a transformation of your identity in the military. When I enlisted and went into basic training, I was told essentially, "We're going to strip you down and rebuild you."In civilian society, in essence, it's every man for himself. But in the military it's: "I have to know that you have my back and you know that I have your back, and that's how we operate. And if one fails, we both fail." That's the transformation that needs to occur, where you're not just thinking about yourself. That's what builds that esprit de corps that many in the military experience.

Q. You mention in the book that it's common for retiring service members to move into jobs with the federal government, either as an employee or contract worker. How widespread is that practice and what are the reasons for it?

A. I don't have any metrics, just my own observation of retiring officers and enlisted people who got out and just assumed a role that they were doing before, but now as a civilian. Why? Because it's a very easy transition. Even though you're not wearing a uniform anymore, you're still operating in the same environment with the same people and the same organizations.

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Q. Are the challenges facing current Iraq and Afghanistan veterans different from those of past conflicts?

A. I don't think the set of challenges are that much different. The unemployment rate for veterans has dropped significantly. The thing that's different is that during the Vietnam War, for example, they really didn't have a name for what they're describing today as post-traumatic stress disorder. I think now, putting a description to it, and having more knowledge about what is happening to some soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who are being diagnosed with having PTSD, we're better able to address it.

Q. Do you think the president's effort to enlist employers to commit to hiring veterans has helped reduce the unemployment rate among veterans?

A. I think it certainly helps. It encourages an employer -- whether it's tax credits or some other incentive that they are given -- to actually hire veterans. I think it contributes to that low unemployment rate; I don't think it's wholly that, but certainly a contributor. Another significant contributor to this outcome is nonprofit organizations dedicated to educating and helping unemployed and employed veterans successfully reintegrate into mainstream society.

Q. Your experience suggests that the challenge for many veterans isn't necessarily finding the job, but keeping a job. Can you explain?

A. Employers often understand why veterans make good employees, but not what it takes to keep them employed and how to fully leverage their talents. I think most employers would say that one of the reasons they would hire veterans is not because of the tax credits but because they have great management skills; they understand diversity; they understand accountability and responsibility; they're strong leaders; and they understand how to converse with people. So they have the capacity to be very strong leaders in any corporation.

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