One reality facing some veterans is prior service injuries. These can be as simple and harmless as partial hearing loss, or something serious which requires constant management like Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). What do employers need to know about your prior service injuries? What are you required to tell them? And how do you talk about that stuff without somehow appearing damaged?
Don’t put prior service injuries on your resume, and don’t bring them up in an interview. This may sound a bit dishonest, but legally employers are not allowed to discriminate based on medical history or medical conditions – including during the hiring process. Furthermore, if you bring up a medical issue like PTSD, you are giving that potential employer a chance to write you off as a medical liability, which is illegal – although it’s easy for companies to disguise by using any number of other characteristics or qualifications to select a “better” candidate. Ultimately, it’s best for everyone if you let the employer hire you (or not) based on your qualifications, not your medical history.
One thing to watch out for, however, is your ability to do the job. If you don’t think you can handle a specific job requirement because of a prior service injury, be honest about it. For example, if a job requires you to stand for eight hours a day and you have a knee injury that makes standing for long periods impossible, you should not take the job. If you accept the job anyway and your employer discovers that you can’t physically do it because you lied about being able to meet the stated requirements – even if you lied by omission – then you can, and likely will be, legally fired.
Make sure a doctor clears you to perform your assigned job. When you are hired for a job, make sure you let your VA (or other) doctor know about it. This is important for your health – you don’t want to take a job that will be painful for you, or hurt you worse – but you also want to prove that you’re fit to work. When an employer finds out about your medical history, they may (for liability reasons) prohibit you from working until you receive a doctor’s clearance because they don’t want to make you do anything that will hurt you. Part of being a good employee, and showing up that first day ready to work, is having a doctor’s clearance in hand.
Work out any special requirements with your direct supervisor. If injury or a condition requires special medication, or makes you more vulnerable to certain hazards, you need to inform your supervisor, which you can do after you’ve been hired. For example, if sudden, loud noises cause you physical distress due to TBI, your supervisor should provide you (at the very least) with hearing protection for your comfort and safety. Note that if the job requires you to be in an area subject to loud, sudden noises, your condition does not entitle you to demand a different job. However, your employer should provide required safety equipment.
Bear in mind that some companies will likely not buy expensive safety equipment (e.g. respirators) on your word alone. A doctor’s clearance should specify whether you need special safety gear and list any physical restrictions on work (e.g. how long you’re permitted to stand without having a seat). It’s worth saying again that if your doctor’s work restrictions prevent you from doing the job, don’t expect to be at that company very long.
Don’t talk about injuries, be patient with ignorance, and beware of special treatment. Prior service injury, especially PTSD and TBI, has received a lot of attention from the media. Once co-workers find out about it, they may become wary of you, afraid you’ll “snap”; they may start questioning you because they want to vicariously live through your experiences; or they may coddle you because (if they’re a supervisor) they don’t want any trouble or because they have an overwhelmingly positive view of the military. Any of these reactions is likely to isolate you from your co-workers, which keeps you from becoming part of the team and will have a negative impact on your progress in that job. Companies are more likely to keep and promote well-liked (read: accepted) employees; the social outliers are easy to cast aside.
Ideally, you should keep your prior service injuries out of conversations with co-workers. Don’t lie, certainly, but don’t give anyone else a reason to be interested in what might or might not have happened to you. It may be tempting to play the heroically damaged war hero, but any initial positive attention you get will turn into wariness, resentment (for your experience and past), or hero worship – all of which will hinder relationships at work. If, knowing you’re a veteran, a co-worker asks you, “So, did you ever get blown up?” or “Did you ever kill anyone?” the best response is usually “nothing really serious” or “I was in a few fights” and let the conversation move on. That keeps you on neutral footing as others regard you, preventing them from seeing you as anything other than a team member.
If you have special medical stuff to take and/or do, like carrying an inhaler for asthma, let your supervisor know about it and ask him or her to keep it quiet. Say something like, “Just so you know, I keep an inhaler on my person for asthma. It won’t affect my work, and please don’t tell anyone else unless it’s necessary.” Telling your supervisor is essential because if there’s an emergency, you want him or her to know how to care for you.
Schedule doctor’s appointments outside of work if able, and schedule them in advance if you will have to miss work. Having to miss work for doctor’s appointments related to injuries is very hard to hide, and may cause other workers to resent you for your absence. If you can, schedule your appointments so they don’t interfere with work. But if you can’t, make sure your supervisor knows well in advance. Don’t openly deceive others by lying about appointments. Missing work on Fridays and Mondays looks a lot like normal vacation, whereas missing work on a Wednesday morning will draw raised eyebrows. Remember, the key to keeping prior service injuries a non-issue is making sure those injuries are kept firmly in the shadow of your job performance.
Some veterans struggle in the workplace with prior service injuries, particularly because such injuries are poorly understood (especially if there is no visible scar). In a better world, employers would know more about war injuries and, as a result, be more compassionate. Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case. Know your rights, don’t present yourself as damaged and give companies the chance to pass you by, make sure you take jobs you for which you are fit, and handle your treatment inconspicuously. That way you have the best chance for a normal job, which will bring you that much closer to a normal life after the service.