Minnesota vets in the workplace

By now, most informed employers know all about depression, post-traumatic-stress disorder, sleep disruption, and the numerous other maladies that afflict soldiers returning from theaters of war. What’s different about America’s post-9/11 conflicts is that substantial numbers of the servicemen and women serving in them came from standby forces of the National Guard and Reserves. Many served multiple tours of duty, being repeatedly yanked from home and workplace, requiring repeated readjustment from a battlefield to homefront mentality. The outcomes were predictable, from run-of-the-mill workplace culture clashes to severe readjustment problems that cost many returning warriors jobs and even careers. This month, TCB takes a look at one returning National Guardsman’s story and examines salient statistics on how well Minnesota is reintegrating its returning warriors.

The Running Man

Paul Kurzweg has worked for National Checking Co. for 33 years, many of them for Ben Olk III, the company’s president. Kurzweg, 54, manages the West St. Paul facility for the company, which was founded in 1905 and serves the restaurant industry, producing guest checks, and delivery and carryout forms. Kurzweg is a veteran who was called up from the Army National Guard to serve in Operation Iraqi Freedom. When he returned stateside after a 13-month deployment he took a week off (federal law allows for three months) and returned to work.

All seemed fine. All wasn’t.

“Most of the company doesn’t know this, and Ben, you might be hearing this for the first time, but I had some real struggles when I returned,” Kurzweg tells Olk as they sit for an interview in the company’s St. Paul office. “Christine [Kurzweg’s wife] wanted me to get help, and I wouldn’t do it. Too macho.”

As a member of the Army National Guard, Paul Kurzweg is representative of the majority of Minnesota service members, 80 percent of whom served either in the Guard or Reserves. (According to the Minnesota National Guard, there have been 26,000 individual deployments since 9/11. There are 32,519 post-9/11 Gulf War veterans in Minnesota, according to the Department of Employment and Economic Development.)

Kurzweg had spent most of his life in service. A native of White Bear Lake, he served in the Army as a young man, spending four years in Germany, driving tanks and scouting on the border. It was there he met Christine. He persuaded her to return to Minnesota in 1981, where they got married and started a family.

His first day at National Checking Co. was Dec. 14 of that year. He’s worked there ever since. Kurzweg moved up from entry-level positions to lead pressman to a role as a slitter machine operator and then manager.

He reenlisted in 1989 in the Army National Guard with the 128th Infantry Heavy Weapons Company. “I wanted to keep serving my country,” he says, “and thought the Reserves would be the perfect fit with the demands of my career and family.”

Iraq war veteran Paul Kurzweg, left, stands with Ben Olk III
Photo by Becca Sabot
Iraq war veteran Paul Kurzweg, left, stands with Ben Olk III, his
longtime boss at National Checking Company.

Little did he know back then that in 14 years he’d be tapped to serve in Iraq. He was activated and attached to the 278th Armored Calvary Regiment. He trained at Camp Shelby in Mississippi and in Fort Irwin, Calif., from June to October 2004, and in November was deployed to Kuwait. In December he moved with Forward Operating Base Cobra, where he performed convoy security, humanitarian missions and combat operations. He returned stateside in October 2005.

Those first few days back were sweet. Literally.

“The air smelled sweet. It was fall, the leaves had changed. It didn’t have the smell of the Middle East,” he says. “I think I slept that whole first week.”

But then he stopped sleeping. Not completely. But he wasn’t rested.

“My wife asked me, ‘What are you dreaming about?’ And I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ And she said, ‘You’re always running, your feet are moving.’ I said ‘I don’t know, I don’t remember the dreams.’ ”

Kurzweg’s story is one that many veterans share on returning to or entering the workforce.

Since October 2001, there have been more than 2,000,000 deployments to combat theaters in Iraq and Afghanistan, including 793,000 multiple deployments. Soldiers encounter intense levels of stress, which contribute to unprecedented levels of mental and substance-use disorders, as well as high rates of suicide, homelessness and unemployment. Post-Deployment Health Reassessment Program data show that up to 38 percent of soldiers and 31 percent of Marines suffer from negative psychological symptoms.

Untreated psychological symptoms often result in self-medication with alcohol and drugs. According to the American Forces Press Service, 21 percent of service members admit to drinking heavily, significantly higher than the percentage for civilians. National Guard and Reserve troops experience mental and substance-use disorders at unusually high rates. According to a recent RAND study, nearly 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan vets screen positive for post-traumatic stress disorder or depression.

Kurzweg certainly had never experienced something like this before.

Those first several months Kurzweg would get up not having slept much. He was irritable, not himself. He shrugged it off, figured it would correct on its own.

And there was the job. He loved his job. He loved his colleagues. They were like family to him. And with three kids out of the house, he was eager to stay busy.

He reported for work a week after returning home. Olk remembers thinking it seemed a bit soon, but he wanted to be mindful of Kurzweg’s wishes.

“I remember we were kind of grinding on it, not sure what to do. We wanted to get you involved and have you be part of things, but also wanted to make sure you had time to rest,” Olk said to Kurzweg. “There wasn’t an expectation that you would come back and be up to speed right away, but you did come back sooner than we expected.”

He did well in his job, but outside of work he was struggling. He missed his Army buddies and routines. He was functioning, but some behaviors were off.

Kurzweg and his wife identified some triggers, such as movies and TV coverage of events in the Middle East. “I can watch movies about World War II or Vietnam, but anything about the Middle East and my wife notices that for a week I’m running again,” he says. “She asked me to never watch Frontline or Homeland, which is too bad, as I find Homeland interesting.”

Night driving was also an issue. He had become accustomed to driving in Iraq with no lights on—and he was repeating the pattern at home, much to Christine’s consternation. So he made an adjustment at work.

“For a while I would leave at four in the afternoon because I had made a promise to Christine that I wouldn’t drive at night,” he says, noting that she even took his keys for a couple weeks. “I told a couple people at work what was going on, that in Iraq we drove around in the dark, never drove with the lights on, we used night vision for security reasons. So that was part of my transition, to learn how to drive at night again.”

Kurzweg had the good fortune to have a workplace to return to, and one in which he had history and where he felt comfortable. A lot of vets feel a stigma when they return to work or apply for work. Recent surveys show that the stigma is not just perception. Some employers and HR hiring managers do make assumptions about vets and their capacities.

Monster Worldwide publishes a Veteran Talent Index, and its most recent findings (May 2014) show that 20 percent of employers surveyed had major concerns about post-9/11 vets and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and how that might affect young veterans on the job.

And 28 percent of the veterans surveyed by Edelman Berland, a global market research firm, said they “feel that being a veteran makes it more difficult to find employment.” Sixteen percent said that “I find that I have to defend myself against psychological or emotional trauma accusations.”

Kurzweg’s supervisor Olk didn’t know of his struggles, and that’s how Kurzweg wanted it. His wife had communicated to the company on his return about what could emerge, but Kurzweg didn’t want a big deal made out of his return. He was happy to be back. “There’s not enough words to say how well this company has treated me over the years,” he says.

Olk was aware some veterans struggle, but wasn’t given much in the way of information. “I would read in the media what were some of the issues that might come up,” he says. “But I don’t recall getting any information from the Army or anyone.”

Kurzweg thrived once back in Minnesota, and at his first opportunity Olk promoted him to manager. He’s been pleased with Kurzweg’s work, although he did have to gently ask him to modify some of his techniques.

“When Paul took over these new responsibilities at the plant, he created a culture around what had been a pretty lax organization. He was able to bring some discipline and order to it. The guys who worked there weren’t sure what to make of it. There were a couple times I had to remind him: ‘We’re not in the Army, Paul,’ ” Olk says.

“It doesn’t mean that some of those discipline issues shouldn’t be addressed. I think Paul was great about wanting to listen when it was brought to his attention, that something was too harsh or too regimented. The team today has a much better atmosphere. There’s accountability. But it took Paul a while to find the right balance.”

Twin Cities BusinessOutside of work Kurzweg was managing his triggers the best he could.

“It was a couple years after I got back that my wife suggested I call someone, stay in contact with some of the guys, to relate stories or to touch base and stuff. That helped,” he says. “Looking back now, maybe I should have gone and gotten some counseling, but I figured I’m going to be OK and I don’t need it. But she was right. I should have gone. It really took me about five years to feel better.”

Kurzweg has had the opportunity to mentor two other vets at National Checking as they returned to work. One worked out. The other didn’t.

“The one guy who is still with us took about two months before coming back to work, and I think that was a smart decision,” Kurzweg says. “He’s a solid performer for us.

“But the other guy came back to work pretty quick and didn’t last long. He became kind of quiet. He didn’t seem very focused and he left after just a short period back. He’s driving truck now.”

Did Kurzweg come back to work too soon? Did the truck driver? Probably. But a lot of veterans do. It’s in their nature to serve. A key is to make sure they stay in contact with their fellow soldiers. Kurzweg learned how necessary this was.

“When I returned I didn’t go to drill or weekend training for three months. I realized how much I needed that,” he says. “Even if you’re just sitting around drinking coffee telling stories, it’s better if you see the guys you were overseas with much sooner. The National Guard has changed it so you drill a month after you get back so you can reconnect with fellow soldiers,” he says. “In retrospect, I think I would have stayed home a little longer and reconnected with my buddies.”

Join us as a panel of experts discuss challenges and solutions to re-hiring veterans.,
Loews Minneapolis Hotel
Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2014 – 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.

To register, go to: Tcbmag.com/VETS14
This Twin Cities Business event is sponsored by APi Group.

Adam Wahlberg is a freelance writer and founder of Think Piece Publishing.

This article is reprinted in partnership with Twin Cities Business.

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