One Guard Member’s Flexibility Story

Adam Reich, is a Veteran and Student Attorney in the Work-Life Policy Unit at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. Please note that the views of our guest bloggers do not necessarily reflect the views of the Sloan Work and Family Research Network.

People talk about supporting our troops every day.  In newspapers, offices, dining rooms, and community spaces, a national conversation is taking place about the needs of military members and their families.  This renewed national attention is promising.  The members of our Armed Forces deserve this conversation.  They put their lives in danger to protect our Country, sometimes at much personal cost.  I have first-hand experience with this sacrifice.  I served as a turret gunner on a Humvee in Iraq with the Arizona Army National Guard from 2005-2006.  In April 2005, I was wounded during a roadside bomb attack.  I lost about 60% of the hearing in my left ear, and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. This attack altered my life forever.  Before and after I deployed, I worked for a Phoenix-area hospital as a patient transporter.  Even though I technically had the same job, things were different after service, and I returned to a civilian life that looked quite different to me than the one I left.  Things still look different five years later.

In April, I spoke at an event in the National Dialogue on Workplace Flexibility.  The event was hosted by the Women's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor, the Work-Life Policy Unit of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, the YWCA of Maricopa County, and WorldatWork’s Alliance for Work-Life Progress. In an effort to tailor the conversation to the needs of our community, speakers and participants explored the challenges and opportunities of workplace flexibility for Arizona’s military families and their employers.  After an overview of the status of military families and workplace flexibility in our state was provided, my panel discussed key trends and best practices on workplace flexibility to support servicemembers and their families in public and private sector companies.  (Video and materials are available at http://www.law.asu.edu/justiceclinic/CivilJusticeClinic/NewsandEvents.aspx.)

My contribution to the panel was telling my story.  It is one thing to have this conversation in the abstract, but I was proud to put a face to the problem.  In so doing, I provided a perspective from a military member who had reintegrated into the civilian workforce after a 16 month deployment to Iraq.  I came back a wounded warrior and watched my brothers and their families struggle to regain a sense of normalcy.  Of course, as I said on the panel, we need to be careful not to stereotype military families.  No two servicemembers experiences are the same during service or reintegration.  Don't get me wrong, there is a shared experience and understanding amongst my comrades, but our specific needs varied and still vary.  Consequently, there is no one flexibility practice that would help all of us and our families reintegrate and stay connected to the workplace at all times.  A range of essential flexibility supports for military families are needed.  And a number of policies that have been piloted and implemented already were discussed by my co-panelists.

While talking about workplace flexibility generally is an important step, I believe the most important aspect of any employment relationship is an open dialogue about each party’s needs.  I was fortunate enough to have a positive experience with my own employer following my tour of duty in Iraq.

When I returned from a difficult tour patrolling the roads of Western Baghdad I knew that reintegration into the hospital environment would be difficult.  I called my supervisor and told him I was ready to come back to work.  He informed me that I could come back to work whenever I was ready and to not rush into work if I was not ready.  I knew I had lasting wounds from my tour, some of which would require frequent medical appointments and undoubtedly had a significant impact on my ability to work.  But on my first day back to work, my supervisor sat me down and asked me what I needed from him as I began the process of reintegrating into work.

At first I was resistant to tell him anything that I needed.  Military culture in general makes veterans adverse to seeking assistance or to even admit any weakness.  On top of that I was afraid that if I revealed the serious effects of my post-traumatic stress disorder that I would no longer be able to work at a hospital.  My job involved significant contact with patients and often times a heavy dose of stress.  My supervisor, however, kept asking me what he could do to help me care for myself and he explained what he expected from me as an employee.  When I was comfortable, we worked out a plan where I would receive my full amount of hours and still leave for 1-2 hours as necessary.  And I was encouraged to revisit the conversation as my needs changed over the weeks, months, and ultimately years.

The open communication with my supervisor continued until I left that job to attend law school.  I share my story in hopes of helping other military families know they are not alone and to inform employers how much flexibility can impact reintegration in a positive way.  I am heartened by the focus on military families in the National Dialogue on Workplace Flexibility and by the efforts of the recent Joining Forces Initiative, which encourages all Americans to assist military families with their unique obligations and to help employers create military friendly workplaces.  These are steps in the right direction.  I hope the Administration and others continue to dig deeper into these needs.  We must educate my fellow veterans that they are not alone and asking for the flexibility they need at work is ok.  We also must educate employers about the importance of workplace flexibility for military families and how to actually implement these types of programs.  It is time we recognized the value workplace flexibility has for military families meeting their personal and family obligations at the same time they serve our Country and try to remain a productive member of the workforce.