Valuing Our Veterans

Valuing Our Veterans

Why we should do more to welcome them home—with jobs.

Veterans Day doesn’t really seem to mean all that much to most people. It’s just another federal holiday like President’s Day, where the government wants us to remember something but commerce doesn’t think it important enough to grant us a day off, as it does for Memorial Day. But shouldn’t honoring the living be as important as honoring those who died?

Granted, it’s easier to focus on those no longer with us—we can do so in our thoughts, in a brief prayer before a barbecue, or while standing at attention as the colors are shown at an event or parade, and then move on with our day. Take a day off to honor the living instead, and we might be inclined to look at how vets are doing and whether we could be helping them more. And maybe along the way, we’d notice things that make us uncomfortable, such as how we’re discriminating against them on the job front.

It’s not a fun subject for the family picnic, but Minnesota has one of the worst employment gaps between vets and non-vets. In 2012 we ranked ninth best in the country in its overall low unemployment rate, but ninth worst in the unemployment rate for post-9/11 vets. The gap hasn’t improved much since then.

If you or someone you know isn’t a vet, why should you care? Well, first and foremost, there’s what these folks did for us while serving in the military. More significant, however, is what they’re still going to do. Vets aren’t as “past tense” as society generally tends to treat them. Most are young and they’re going to be playing a significant role in our future as they raise families and lead schools, community organizations, emergency services, corporations, hospitals, arts organizations and so on.

John Zajackowski
John Zajackowski as a young World War II vet (above), and 55 years later. Employers were quick to recognize his leadership skills after his service in the war.

I got to know one such fellow very well over the course of 20 years’ worth of casual conversations about life and his experiences along the way. John Zajackowski was the smartest, nicest, most sincerely interested-in-you individual I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing, and he lived a good 90 years before passing away a year and a half ago. Only five of his years were spent serving in the military.

One of a family of 13 kids growing up during the Great Depression in central Wisconsin, John enlisted in the Army in late 1939, drawn by the pay and because he thought it would be good to serve his country in peacetime. After Pearl Harbor was bombed, his company from Fort Sheridan was one of the first to be called up to help with the war in Europe. After boarding a ship, they were abruptly told to get off, as it was the wrong one. Days later, the vessel hit a mine and sank, killing most of those aboard. John’s mother received a letter saying he had died, only to learn months later that he really hadn’t.

John was first stationed in Iceland, where he helped defend against the Germans and develop a landing strip for planes shipping supplies to Great Britain. He was later sent to England where, as a member of the Army’s 1st Artillery unit, he learned how to lead M-4 tanks that pulled 90mm anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns. From there forward, his group used those guns during the second-day wave at Omaha Beach in Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge (where the most American soldiers died in any single day during the war), and in other campaigns. He eventually helped free prisoners from a Nazi concentration camp. After serving five years, he came home.

After the war, he and his bride, Betty, bought a house in Milwaukee. A few years later, John decided to move his young family closer to his hometown and applied for a fire-fighting job in Wausau. The police department asked him to think about a position there instead, and John joined the force, which became the perfect career for someone whose time in the Army was spent working with and leading others in an efficient, respectful manner. He moved up to become a detective, then the head of the Youth Aid Bureau during the tumultuous 1960s, then rose to inspector before retiring. Betty worked as a dedicated elementary school teacher while raising their four children.

For up to 15 years after they retired, they both could be found strolling around the greater Wausau area (about 80,000 population), where they might be approached by someone who would recount how they had been helped by John or Betty 20 or 30 years earlier.

I can only imagine how many lives would have not been positively influenced if the Wausau Police Department had looked at John as many of our employers seem to be looking at vets today. World War II was in many ways a different kind of war from the kind our troops have been battling in the Middle East and, before that, Vietnam. But they deserve the same type of appreciation and respect prior generations of vets received when they came home.

This is, in part, why our cover story this month delves into the reasons more Minnesota employers haven’t been hiring vets, gives reasons why they should, and provides examples of employers who are doing a good job hiring them. It’s written by an extremely passionate journalist, TCB Senior Editor Adam Wahlberg, who spent far more hours and had many more discussions than we were able to fit in the pages of a magazine.

On this Veterans Day, I hope you’ll stop and think for a moment about what you as an employer are doing to welcome these folks home. They not only deserve our appreciation—they’re great hires.

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