Imagine the absurdity of an argument that states that the Department of Education employs too many ex-teachers. Or that the Center for Disease Control has too many doctors. That was my reaction to the recent War on the Rocks commentary “Is Veterans’ Preference Bad for the National Security Workforce?”
The authors’ primary objection to veterans’ preference seems to be rooted in their desire to maintain civilian control of the military. Indeed, Article II, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution states among many other powers, “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States...” But the framers recognized the difference between an active-duty soldier and a veteran or else they would have found someone other than a former general to practically anoint as our first president.
While most Americans approve of President Washington’s performance in office, it is not senior officers who benefit from veterans’ preference anyway. It’s the junior enlisted, NCOs and company grade officers. When I left the Marine Corps as sergeant, I could have benefited from veterans’ preference. When I later retired from the North Carolina National Guard as a colonel, I could not. Unless one incurs a service-connected disability, retired field grade and flag officers are ineligible. But this isn’t about taking care of the top brass. It’s about the troops. Who better to serve the U.S. government than those who at some time in their lives pledged a willingness to die for it?
Lost in the civilian control of the military argument is the simple fact that with the exception of those still in the service, veterans are civilians. Those that are in the military already have fulltime jobs.
In spite of unfair stereotypes of veterans as war-mongers, it is Dwight D. Eisenhower who said, “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.” And it is still our elected officials rather than our federal workers who determine if or when military force should be used.
As the nation’s largest veterans’ organization, The American Legion has a long history of advocating for the occupational and educational advancement of those who answered our country’s call. At our national convention in 2016, delegates unanimously passed Resolution No. 358, “Support for Veterans’ Preference in Public Employment.”
Our delegates proudly went on record stating, in part, “That The American Legion deplores each and every attempt to degrade, dilute, or modify the historical precedence of giving job eligibility preference to those who are taken from their communities to serve their country in time of war…”
The delegates further resolved, “That all executives at every level of government are urged to enforce veterans’ preference in their government agencies.”
During a time when the military was almost entirely male, Alexander Hamilton said, “Justice and humanity forbid the abandoning to want and misery men who have spent their best years in the military service of a country or who in that service had contracted infirmities which disqualify them to earn their bread in other modes.”
It is in this spirit that additional veterans’ preference points and benefits are awarded to those who incur a 30-percent or more disability rating. While some veterans’ preference critics lament that the beneficiaries are mostly male, the solution would be to better incentivize women to join the military. If they do, they would find no better advocate for their interests than The American Legion.
Our organization recognizes that there are many outstanding civil servants who haven’t served in the military and we have never advocated that veteran-status be the only factor in federal hiring. But it should be an important factor.
According to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), 69 percent of the federal workforce are not veterans. It is also worth noting that the well-earned veterans’ preference benefit does not apply to Senior Executive Service jobs or executive branch positions for which Senate confirmation is required. Moreover, the legislative and judicial branches are exempt from the Veterans’ Preference Act unless the positions are in the competitive service.
Veterans are already at a disadvantage when it comes to occupational advancement. While serving in the military, young men and women remove themselves from the civilian workforce. Many postpone or cancel opportunities for academic or vocational education. As their former high school or college classmates climb corporate ladders, the military men and women risk life and limb climbing mountains in Afghanistan or dodging explosives in Iraq.
But when their military obligation ends, the experienced veterans are more often than not physically fit, highly disciplined, professional and equipped with a skill set obtained through some of the best training in the world.
There is a simple solution for workers who oppose leveling the federal playing field with veterans’ preference policies. They can visit their local recruiting offices, dedicate a few years of their lives to serving their country, and become veterans. They should be warned that the training is challenging and the hardships are numerous. But in the end they will see that the benefits obtained are well-deserved.
Veterans’ preference is a tie-breaker among a pool of qualified applicants. Nobody is suggesting filling air traffic controller positions with truck drivers. But it does make sense to heavily staff the department which sends America’s young people to war with those who have experienced the fight. They earned it.