By Tom Conway
USW International President
Gregory Washington joined the Marines at 18 and fought in the Gulf War, only to return — traumatized, unemployed, adrift — to an America that seemed as unfamiliar and daunting to him as the places he encountered overseas.
It took Washington years to find a family-sustaining job, secure his disability benefits and reacclimate to civilian life.
Now, he’s a leader in his local union and determined to help forge a smoother path for others who served. He and fellow members of the United Steelworkers (USW) are advocating for state laws requiring employers to post official notices of the health, social and other services available to support veterans as they build new lives on the homefront.
New York enacted its version of the workplace poster law, written with USW members’ input, Jan. 1. Union members continue working to advance similar legislation in Iowa, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Texas and other states.
“At the end of the day, we want to readjust. We want to work. We want to take care of our families,” observed Washington, vice president of USW Local 13–1, which represents hundreds of workers at the Pemex oil refinery and other workplaces in southeastern Texas.
“Sometimes, nobody even talks to veterans. They get out, and that’s it,” said Washington, recalling the difficulty he had battling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) while finding a way forward on his own.
Washington, who took part in the February 1991 battle that dislodged Iraqi forces from Kuwait International Airport, discovered that the hyper-vigilance, lightning-quick responsiveness and other traits that kept him alive in the Marines sometimes disconcerted people at home. He struggled to sustain friendships with non-veterans, who appreciated his service but couldn’t relate to his experiences.
And as he wrestled with how to translate his military skills into civilian employment, Washington fell into low-paying security jobs that barely enabled him to support his growing family.
Many veterans experience similar hardships. As many as 46 percent of recent veterans with combat experience struggle to readjust after discharge, and those like Washington with PTSD “are among the most likely to say their transition to civilian life was difficult,” according to Pew Research Center.
Yet at the same time, the resources available to help veterans confront these very challenges routinely go unused.
For example, a research team led by Penn State University studied about 10,000 veterans and found that only 11 percent enrolled in social support programs within three months of discharge. Fewer than half took advantage of legal or housing aid, while only 60 percent registered for vocational assistance, according to the study, “Going It Alone,” published in 2019 by the Journal of Social Service Research.
Researchers determined that those most in need of support were the least likely to seek it and stressed that “veterans need clear information about available programs” and “where to locate them.”
It’s exactly that gap that USW members intend to fill with their advocacy for informational workplace posters. The Texas bill, sponsored by Sen. César Blanco and Rep. Chris Turner, would require employers to put up state-issued posters that outline the various tax benefits, health services and education and training opportunities available to veterans, along with information on how to access them.
“A lot of people need to be educated,” confirmed Washington, recalling how much sooner he could have put his own life on track if he’d seen a workplace listing of the resources available to veterans.
He received the assistance he needed only because of persistence and the decision to move his family from Louisiana to Texas for a fresh start. Washington found supportive co-workers at the oil refinery, became active in the USW and connected with the Texas Veterans Commission, which secured his disability benefits and provided other resources.
“It changed my life,” he said, noting employers have a vested interest in ensuring veterans access the services they need.
Without help, some veterans never make it, observed Justin Rankin, a member of USW Local 12460, noting the USW-backed legislation will help save lives by requiring that the workplace posters also provide contact information for the national Veterans Crisis Line.
Rankin, who works at US Salt in Watkins Glen, N.Y., served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan and remains a member of the New York Army National Guard. He’s lost numerous military friends to suicide and supports others who want to talk, saying, “I’ve sat up three, four, five, six hours talking to a buddy.”
After completing active-duty service with the Army, Rankin once went to a counseling center at a college he attended. “They didn’t know what to do with me,” he said of counselors accustomed to dealing with “bad grades, bad breakups,” not combat trauma.
“It’s hard for veterans to ask for help,” and that reluctance underscores the importance of connecting current and former servicemembers with the right care the first time they ask for it, Rankin said.
By providing information for the Crisis Line, he noted, the New York workplace posters offer immediate access to a special level of assistance that veterans established to help fellow veterans.
While Washington and Rankin will continue looking out for veterans who approach them for help, they see informational posters as a critical tool for saving those who might otherwise never ask for support or signal that they need it.
Rankin choked up as he recalled being “blindsided” by the suicide of one friend who seemed to be doing well.
“It’s huge that this legislation passed in New York,” he said. “But veterans in other states need it, too. We have to start helping each other out.”