Veterans entering the job market today sometimes face gross misconceptions by prospective employers of what it means to have wartime experience. The problem is especially pronounced for veterans transitioning from combat arms specialties.

An infantryman, for example, knows how to work hard in a way that almost transcends the material and enters the metaphysical—and not just “exciting” hard work, but jaw-clenchingly boring, manual labor. A Ranger knows when to follow and when to lead, and knows how to pivot instantly from one to the other. It’s a skill honed through hard training and grim experience. A veteran who has served on a small team knows what it means to be reliable, and why it matters. If a man says he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it, and his teammates don’t have to fret or double-check—it’s going to get done. That’s what a combat arms veteran knows.

What a civilian knows, however, is filtered through an Xbox One or action movie. “Leadership” and “reliability” are good words, yes, but in that rote “thankyouforyourservice” kind of way. For them, war is either Black Hawk Down or Zero Dark Thirty: an abattoir in the desert, or an effortless, clinical killing of hapless video game bad guys spawned specifically for the battle, but weren’t born and won’t be mourned—bad guys that appear, die immediately, and dissolve, leaving behind a health kit or spare magazine.

Because “infantry” means two very different things to the veteran and the job interviewer, when a combat arms veteran walks into an office to interview for a position, he or she has to first dispel the fiction before ever getting a chance to assert—let alone prove—the reality of the job and the experience. That’s a tall order for a twenty-minute interview. A vet wants a job in IT, and knows: “I once did a hard job in a bad place, and I then used what I learned to get through school to learn a new trade.” A prospective boss, meanwhile, thinks: “This person killed people for a living and now wants to fix computers.”

Veterans are up against some pretty tough numbers, too. Less than one-half of one percent of Americans have served in the military—an absurdly small number for a such a sustained global conflict. In comparison, World War II saw 11.2 percent of Americans serve, and Vietnam involved 4.3 percent of the population. Employers couldn’t ignore ten or even five percent of Americas, and in all likelihood, those employers were themselves vets. But 0.45 percent? Those are not odds to stake one’s paycheck on, or in the case of the job-seeking veteran, odds on which to stake getting a paycheck in the first place.

To find out how some veterans deal with the interview process I reached out to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, an advocacy group devoted to the men and women who served in those wars. They connected me with Phil Hudson, an IAVA member and Afghanistan veteran who served as a cav scout in the 101st Airborne Division. Hudson explained that veterans—especially those coming from combat arms—should be prepared for grossly inappropriate questions, and should be prepared to use such moments to demonstrate personal character and how it might benefit a company.

“The best way to capitalize on one’s combat experience during a job interview is to explain to the interviewer how combat has made you more self aware as a person,” said Hudson. “Elaborate on the teamwork that is necessary for combat arms to operate effectively and efficiently.”

When an actual veteran is faced with a “veteran” of “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare”, cavalier questions about killing can be expected. “When I transitioned to the civilian world, I was shocked by the amount of people who think its acceptable to ask combat veterans to describe their combat experience or to ask combat veterans how many friends they had that were killed overseas.” Hudson’s advice in a job interview: “If they ask if you have ever killed someone, look them square in the eye and say, ‘Yep (even if you haven’t), and I’m itching to do it again. Who are your biggest competitors?'” The effect is three-fold: to demonstrate an unwillingness to dignify foolish questions, to turn the topic back to the company, and to do this without coming off as too brusque or incensed.

Once a veteran gets the job, things will be complicated for a while. “I was also shocked to learn that many civilians will accept failure because of emotional weakness,” said Hudson. “Mental toughness in the workplace is often overlooked because most workplaces cater to the mentally weak—’the squeaky wheel gets the grease’—the exact opposite of the military.” A veteran should be prepared for this while also dealing with another common misconception: that basic training is how the actual military works, and that people end instructions with Hollywood phrases like “that’s an order!” or preface conversations with superiors with “permission to speak freely.”

These are tough times in the job market, and it feels unpatriotic (it’s certainly illegal, anyway) for employers to judge negatively a veteran who wants a new job. Because employers are often coming from a place of ignorance and misunderstanding, as opposed to hostility or philosophic disagreement, hope is not lost for the job-seeking veteran. It will, sadly, take patience and a careful willingness to teach on the part of the veteran, and in the longer term, a broader understanding by the American public of what our fighting men and women do beyond the cartoonish antics of video game characters. It will take an effort on America’s part to come to grips with what war means, what it demands, and what it instills in the men and women who temporarily take up arms to wage it.

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David Brown is a regular contributor to ClearanceJobs. His most recent book, THE MISSION (Custom House, 2021), is now available in bookstores everywhere in hardcover and paperback. He can be found online at