Returning Veterans Seeking Employment: When the Trickle Turns Into a Flood

The number of returning veterans with major wounds is likely to be very large, and federal agencies will have to be creative, probably to an unprecedented degree, in coming up with the reasonable accommodations that will be needed. Is there the will in federal agencies to hire them?

As of August 2008, there were roughly 144,000 Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force & Marine Corps personnel deployed in Iraq, an additional 33,000 troops in Afghanistan, and 30,000 more deployed in the Gulf region, for a total of more than 200,000.

Given the fact that the Iraqi parliament recently approved the Status of Forces Agreement, which mandates that U.S. forces be withdrawn from that country by the end of 2011, the relative trickle of troops returning to the U.S. and looking for work is likely to turn into a flood in the foreseeable future.

On Veterans Day, and the weekend leading up to it, we happened to be on Oahu when U.S. Senator Daniel Akaka, my former boss, was addressing several hundred veterans at an appreciation event. Akaka, chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said that he was "focusing on the invisible injuries such as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and traumatic brain injury, as well as the physical costs of war."

The Honolulu Advertiser noted that "The well-being of wounded warriors and their families has been singled out as one of the Pentagon’s highest priorities." Accordingly, November was designated "Warrior Care Month" to "bring attention to issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury."

The article went on to state that:

"The number of troops with new cases of PTSD jumped by about 50 percent in 2007, and records show that about 40,000 service members have been diagnosed with the illness since 2003 and the start of the Iraq war.


Many more are believed to be keeping their PTSD secret.

Combat stress and long separations from family have led to a spike in suicides, divorces and domestic abuse.

…Officials acknowledge a big problem remains in getting service members past the stigma of PTSD for warriors who are trained to overcome adversity.

The effects of combat have long been documented, meanwhile, even if there wasn’t the understanding of today or treatment for it.

…One soldier observed that while he leaves the numbers and percentages of PTSD cases to others, "You have to be rock hard not to be affected by war."

An Associated Press article observed that, due largely to advances in medical treatment, about 15 soldiers are wounded for every fatality, a far higher survival rate than in Vietnam and Korea. "The types of wounds being seen in Iraq include gunshot wounds, shrapnel wounds from rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and mortars, burn injuries, motor vehicle accidents and many other injuries. Many of the wounded have required amputations."

I think it is reasonable to assume that a very large number of veterans, many of them with physical and/or psychological wounds, will be returning from war and looking for work.

The federal government considers itself to be the employer of first resort for veterans, and there is veterans’ preference in examinations conducted by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) or by agencies operating Delegated Examining Units authorized by OPM. There are also special appointing authorities for veterans.

Some agencies have already achieved noteworthy success in this area. According to OPM’s "Report to Congress: The Employment of Veterans in the Federal Government, Fiscal Year 2006," the representation of veterans in Air Force is 48.6%, followed by Army with 41.7%, Navy with 37.3%, and Department of Transportation with 30.2%. At the other end of the spectrum, in a number of agencies the representation of veterans is expressed in single digits.

When I reflect on the soldier’s comment in the Honolulu Advertiser about having to be "rock hard not to be affected by war," I can’t help thinking that anyone who has been involved in a war has been shaped – to a greater or lesser extent – by that experience. In some cases, the soldier has been physically wounded, perhaps severely, and that wound has changed his or her life – i.e., relationships with family, career, etc. In other cases, what they have lived through is enough to cause them recurring nightmares or even changed their personalities; like physical wounds, psychological damage can affect relationships with family members and friends, career prospects, and many other aspects of life.

I think about the fact that I never had to experience war first-hand since my legally blind condition without corrective lenses caused me to fail my draft physical (but had very limited effect on my life) and thus to avoid the likelihood of winding up in Vietnam. I must admit to having been greatly relieved at being told to get back on the bus which had transported a group of us from Colorado Springs to Denver, and I feel a special obligation to those who did have to go – to that war or any of the ones which have followed it.

I have also heard, and made, complaints to OPM that the Rule of 3 is too restrictive in terms of limiting agency selection options. One of the major objections agencies have had to the Rule of 3 was that veterans certified to hiring officials were not as well-qualified as non-veterans. That complaint was particularly aimed at 10-point preference eligibles who had a compensable, service-connected disability of 10% or more; those veterans only had to be rated minimally qualified to "float to the top" of a certificate of eligibles.

The practical implication was that the Rule of 3 could become a "Rule of 1," since a non-veteran could not be selected ahead of the compensably disabled veteran.

Now, there is an alternative to the Rule of 3. Category rating was authorized under the Chief Human Capital Officers Act of 2002. Then-OPM Director Linda Springer, in a March 14, 2006, memorandum to Chief Human Capital Officers, stated that "The purpose of category rating is to increase the number of qualified applicants an agency has to choose from while preserving veterans’ preference rights." So far, indications are that category ratings have accomplished both objectives.

Just below are some brief summaries of how veterans’ preference applies under the Rule of 3 and under Category Rating:

Veterans’ Preference in Competitive Examining – Rule of 3

  • Veterans who are eligible for preference and who meet the minimum qualification requirements of the position have 5 or 10 points added to their passing score on a civil service examination
  • For scientific and professional positions in grade GS-9 or higher, names of all eligibles are listed in order of ratings, augmented by veterans’ preference points,
  • A preference eligible is listed ahead of a nonpreference eligible with the same score
  • The agency must select from the top 3 candidates and may not pass over a preference eligible in favor of a lower ranking non-preference eligible without sound reasons that relate directly to the veteran’s fitness for employment
  • The agency may select a lower-ranking preference eligible over a compensably disabled veteran within the Rule of 3

Veterans’ Preference in Competitive Examining – Category Rating

  • Category rating process first ranks candidates in groups based on quality of experience, after which veterans’ preference is applied
  • Preference eligibles who meet minimum qualification standards and have a compensable service-connected disability of 10% or more must be listed in the highest quality group (except in the case of scientific or professional positions at GS-9 or higher)
  • Veterans within a group must be selected over non-veterans, but a non-veteran in the "A" group can be selected over veteran in the "B" group, etc

Special appointing authorities for veterans are briefly summarized below:

Veterans Recruitment Appointment

  • The Veterans Recruitment Appointment (VRA) is a special authority by which agencies can appoint an eligible veteran without competition
  • The VRA is an excepted appointment to a position that is otherwise in the competitive service
  • VRA eligibles may be appointed to any position for which qualified up to GS-11 or equivalent (the promotion potential of the position is not a factor)
  • After 2 years of satisfactory service, the veteran is converted to a career-conditional appointment in the competitive service

30 Percent or More Disabled Veterans

  • These veterans may be given a temporary or term appointment (not limited to 60 days or less) to any position for which qualified (there is no grade limitation)
  • After demonstrating satisfactory performance, the veteran may be converted at any time to a career-conditional appointment

Disabled Veterans Enrolled in VA Training Programs

  • Disabled veterans eligible for training under the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) vocational rehabilitation program may enroll for training or work experience at an agency under the terms of an agreement between the agency and the VA
  • The veteran is not a Federal employee for most purposes while enrolled in the program, but is a beneficiary of the VA
  • Upon successful completion, the veteran will be given a Certificate of Training showing the occupational series and grade level of the position for which trained

– This allows any agency to appoint the veteran noncompetitively for a period of 1 year  

  • Upon appointment, the veteran is given a Special Tenure Appointment which is then converted to career-conditional with OPM approval

Veterans Employment Opportunities Act (VEOA)

  • This authority permits an eligible veteran to apply under an agency merit promotion announcement that is open to candidates outside the agency
  • A veteran selected under the VEOA is given a career or career conditional appointment in the competitive service

Closing Thoughts

The federal government already employs far more veterans, as a percentage of all employees, than does the civilian labor force (CLF). As noted in the aforementioned OPM Report to Congress on the employment of veterans, the percentages and comparisons as of FY-2006 were as follows:

– Veterans as percentage of all employees – 25.4% (versus 8.9 % in CLF)
– Disabled Veterans as percentage of all employees – 5.4% (versus 0.8% in CLF)
– 30% or More Disabled Veterans as percentage of all employees – 2.9% (versus 0.3% in CLF)

There are obviously mechanisms in place to facilitate the placement of returning veterans in federal agencies – including the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, which clarifies and broadens the definition of disability and expands the population eligible for protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The real question, as I see it, is whether there is the will to hire those veterans.

As noted earlier, the number of returning veterans with major wounds is likely to be very large, and federal agencies will have to be creative, probably to an unprecedented degree, in coming up with the reasonable accommodations that will be needed.

I believe that managers and supervisors, with technical help and support from Human Resources, should actively seek to provide suitable hiring opportunities for returning veterans. History says that the federal government will step up and serve as the employer of first resort for these veterans. Given the fact that it was the government that sent them to war – and the sacrifices they have made on behalf of our country – that seems only fair.

About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.