By Charles Curtis
At General Electric, hiring veterans is not just a priority, it’s good business.
For the millions of servicemen and women in the United States, especially veterans with both physical and mental disabilities, coming home can be an entirely different and difficult battle than the ones on foreign soil.
But in a fortunate turn of events, General Electric is doing what it can inside the Fortune 500 company and as a sponsor to ease the burden of veterans coming back into the workforce and adapting to life as civilians.
Just ask Russ Nelson. The 36-year-old native of Clearwater Beach, Fla., enlisted in the U.S. Army at 19. Almost a decade later, he served in Iraq in 2008 as a sergeant in the 3rd Infantry Division. In his second deployment in the war-torn country, the attack with an IED (improvised explosive device) of a convoy he was protecting left him with a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Soon after, the vision in both his eyes began to fail and he was diagnosed with traumatic glaucoma and traumatic uveitis, an inflammatory disease that produces swelling and destroys eye tissues. He was also diagnosed with PTSD, not surprisingly following such a horrifying incident.
The Army came to him a year later and told him they would list him as “retired” at 29. Upon his return to the United States, Nelson had other struggles to contend with: He was “bored out of his mind” 30 days in, but told he’d have no problem finding work in the government. That was far from the case. Six months of trying to get a job led to the decision to get his degree from Xavier University (Ohio) even as he struggled with the effects of his devastating injuries.
“It’s like looking through a dirty window,” he says. “If you don’t clean your windows in the winter time, you know how the salt builds up. When the light hits it, it just glares real badly so you can’t see out of it. That’s what it’s like looking through my eyes. It’s why I wear a hat everywhere.”
While working as a student representative for the school’s Veterans Center, Nelson saw firsthand the kind of support there that was available for veterans like him from General Electric. In 2015, the mammoth technology company gave $100,000 to Xavier to fund a new Veterans Center building on the university’s Cincinnati campus, a place for ex-service members to meet, study together and network. Nelson also saw how committed GE recruiting representatives were to employ former members of the armed forces.
He was hired by GE Global Operations in Cincinnati. GE Aviation (also in Cincinnati) has its own Xavier internship initiative, which launched in 2015 and had already resulted in the hiring of six veterans at the school to be interns in the information technology, human resources and finance departments.
Nelson, a senior who’s a double major in human resources and accounting with a minor in finance, discovered a huge benefit from the job: Just two weeks into the internship, he’s more than happy to report it’s helping him cope with his PTSD. “It gets your mind moving and working on things,” he says. “If your mind is stagnant, you focus on the negatives. One of the ways to get my mind out of it is dealing with normal, everyday life. The past is the past; it can’t be changed. Just work on the present and the future.”
Nelson is one of some 10,000 veterans working in over 70 GE units around the United States, part of the conglomerate’s veterans network. Its aim is to “support, hire and grow” former service members. In 2012, GE established a goal to bring in 5,000 veterans over the next five years. Through 2014, the company had hired 3,500.
The company also funds sponsorships of recruiting events and hosts workshops aimed at helping former members of the armed forces transition into the workforce. In 2015, GE reported it sponsored 29 recruiting events “including seven Hiring Our Heroes workshops designed to mentor transitioning veterans into successful post-military service careers.” As one page on GE’s website says, “Your service made you a leader and a disciplined, strategic thinker with a level of loyalty that is unmatched. … We don’t hire veterans because they’re veterans, we hire veterans because they’re qualified.”
The Veterans Network isn’t just made up of former members of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard— it includes supporters who want to give back through volunteering and fundraising opportunities. That’s where GE has also turned its attention: Support of veterans through corporate partnerships and relationships.
Arguably the company’s most prominent sponsorship comes through its work with Ride 2 Recovery. The nonprofit corporation focuses on using cycling as part of the rehabilitative process for veterans. This initiative includes a program known as Project HERO (Healing Exercise Rehabilitation Opportunity) which is used to “enhance, inspire, and challenge Healing Heroes’ rehabilitation by introducing them to Ride 2 Recovery which allows each person to set individual goals while working in a group.” The charity boasts that 55 percent of all Project HERO participants, some of whom had forms of PTSD, TBI or trauma-related injuries, such as amputations, reduced their use of prescription drugs or did away with them entirely following their participation in the program.
But how does cycling work as a form of rehabilitation from trauma? “You hear from people suffering from PTSD, ‘I can’t keep a grasp on something,’ ” says Kevin Dibb, an executive at GE Aviation who has spearheaded the partnership with R2R. “The physical act of riding a bicycle causes people to focus. You have steer, pedal and make sure you’re not too close to person in front of you. People say that being engaged at a primal level like that they don’t worry about other things.”
Adding a clear head to taxing physical activity can help improve sleep and for a veteran suffering from PTSD. Getting enough sleep can be a colossal challenge for any ex-service member in recovery. But in addition to gaining focus and improving sleep, riding in a group with fellow veterans and volunteers can also have another important mental health benefit.
“A lot of veterans can’t say to their wife or children what they’ve seen or done,” says Jason Whitman, the program manager for the Ohio branch of Project HERO. “You find them riding, off by themselves talking and telling a story they haven’t been able to tell. It’s a physical ride, but so many kinships and friendships are made.”
Those connections include GE employees who are former armed forces veterans. “Folks are getting involved and are not only contributing to the partnership by virtue of participating, but they’re deriving benefits from the program as well,” says Dibb, himself a retired Army officer. “There are salaried workers, hourly workers, folks that aren’t veterans who want to engage. We’re a very inclusive network. We ask, ‘Why are you involved?’ What comes back is: ‘I want to give back. I want to contribute.’ The military is a tradition of selfless service.”
That selflessness stretches all throughout GE and is evident in the way they treat veterans from corporate policy at the top all the way down to recruiting on the ground. “We work with a lot of different companies that say they’re military friendly,” says Chris Klug, the assistant director of Xavier’s Veterans Center, “and GE has been the most proactive about helping veterans and actually caring.”
“Other companies come to us and say, ‘Hey, can you give me your veteran students? We want to interview them,’” he added. “GE digs in and actually gets involved. They’ve really stepped up to the plate.” That includes extending an internship to someone like Nelson who might not get the same opportunity at another company given his disabilities.
It’s why the conglomerate continues to rake in awards and honors, including being named one of the most military friendly employers for 12 straight years by GI Jobs Magazine. Or, to put it even more simply, as Nelson says, “They kind of put their money where their mouth is.”