Minnesota's Veterans: The Road Back Home
Hector Matascastillo Rapid Response Specialist, Dislocated Worker Program, Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development
Hector Matascastillo heads a team that provides state job-related services in the wake of layoffs. He served in Iraq with the U.S. Army 75th Ranger Regiment and was awarded the Bronze star.
Comments by Hector Matascastillo
Question: Could you tell us a bit about the team you head at the Department of Employment and Economic Development and how it's responding to the wave of veterans returning in a difficult economy?
One of the things that we are working on now is a special project for veterans. In this case, we're going to take all these veterans — the ones who are coming back from the 34th Infantry Division, the Marines, everybody that we know who is coming back from active duty — and we are going to try to isolate resources so that we can be more meaningful toward assisting veterans with their specific issues. Because as it stands right now, when a guy comes back and gets in a project with his civilian colleagues, they focus on him as though he was a civilian worker, which isn't culturally meaningful.
Question: How are the challenges for a veteran who is looking for a job different than those of other unemployed Minnesotans?
We are talking about a warrior culture, and there are cultural barriers that are very unique. When we left for the military, we said, I will assimilate — I understand that this culture provides me with a different set of values, and I will accept that as my new calling. Then we come back to the civilian population. I think we did a disservice by saying to Vietnam veterans, you have to start acting like us again. We can't — why would we? This isn't a slam at anybody, but we live by values and creeds and colors. And now you want me to get rid of them? Those things kept me warm when the bullets were flying overhead.
So you get a veteran coming back, and you start talking to him about unemployment insurance and all this other stuff, and he's going to look at you and say, I'm not going to apply for that. I'm not going to do that, because the culture says, why would I take something from someone else? So we need to start saying, okay, this population needs to be served in a different way, because of cultural values, cultural boundaries and expectations. On top of that, we know that employers are going to look at them differently: Are you going to deploy again? Is your family going to leave Minnesota? What risk am I taking by hiring you? Although I want your skills and abilities, how am I going to balance the risk that I'm taking by hiring you?
Question: It's illegal for an employer to refuse to hire a veteran because they're concerned he or she might be called back to duty.
You are absolutely correct.
Question: But you're saying it happens anyway?
Sure. It's an at will employment state, so as an employer I don't necessarily have to say why I'm not hiring you. So I'm in the National Guard, I just got back from a deployment, and in two years, my unit has already been notified that we might have another mission. When do you say that to an employer? When I was a veterans employment representative, I would coach my veterans as to when the appropriate time was, other than the resume. If you say it in an interview, you'll never know why you didn't get hired, but I could pretty much tell you why you didn't get hired — "Are you going to be around or what, man?" It's not a legal question, but do you tell an employer, you're asking me an illegal question in an interview? Or do you find a way around that question?
The question does get brought up because you have people who are not savvy about interviewing techniques, who ask the question and use it against the veteran. Veterans laws aren't as well disseminated as your typical human resources law is.
Question: Could you tell us some more about how military culture is different, and how this affects veterans seeking to reenter civilian life?
We value loyalty. For instance, I will use my Ranger Creed — I will shoulder more than my share of the task, whatever it may be, 100 percent and then some; neatness of dress and care of equipment shall set the example for others to follow. My officers will have maximum time to accomplish their mission, they will not have to accomplish mine. So in the military, I'm doing things behind my officers' back that are going to make them look good, and going to get the mission done. When they come down and see that it was done, I'm praised. Now I do that in a civilian sector, and I start becoming a threat. They don't realize that I'm being loyal, that I want them to look good, that I want the mission to get accomplished. But now I'm being counseled for doing something that, although it was great, I shouldn't have done it, but I didn't know that. Why is my job in jeopardy? You are counseling me for being loyal to you.
If you go into one agency and you mention teamwork, the definition of teamwork will be different when you go to the next agency. That, to a veteran, is extremely confusing. Because when I think of loyalty — that guy to my left and my right, and the guy in front of me and the guy behind me, we are one. That might mean that today I give my life for that brother, but he's got to make it, because he's got a kid and a wife.
Question: How is it different for this generation of men and women who are coming back, versus those who served in Vietnam and earlier?
Let's use the greatest generation, World War II. The country was still growing, and all sorts of things were kicking in that were making the economy better when they came back — suburbia, the construction of new cities and towns, just to meet the needs of veterans. So they had jobs when they came back. They had families, and there was prosperity.
Then with Vietnam, you had a society that was in direct revolution with its own values. And when the veteran came back, the culture then was saying, "It's not cool to be you, man. You need to change. When are you going to stop being military? That's when you can re-integrate, otherwise we're not going to let you."
Now you have a completely volunteer army, where a lot of these kids are saying, "Hey, I know that as soon as I sign up, I'm going to be sent off to war. And when I come back, I might want to go again, because it makes sense and because the job wasn't done. On top of that, there's no jobs here, so the only stability I can create for myself and my family is to keep going back. There is nothing that I can do here, there is nothing available for me here, and if I don't go this time, then I'll lose my house, and I'll lose who knows what else."
So the pull is back towards, I'll go again. I'll be honest with you: myself, I tell my wife, I'm getting the itch, I feel like I need to go again. But it's not realistic anymore. Now imagine being twenty-something, and it is realistic, and it makes economic sense. Some of these kids, just in Iraq alone, have gone back four times, the National Guard guys. You're looking at a generation that is really embracing the term "warrior" and warrior culture, and saying, "This is my culture. When I go back, I'm never going to lose this culture; this is who I am."