HR Insider May 19 2010

Wounded Warriors Continue to Fight at USAA

By kyle stock

USAA has always been a little different. The Texas-based bank and insurer is open only to consumers with a military connection and has long fought to provide low rates and fair loans to those clients. Now, it has a focus on enlisting former soldiers in that campaign.

The company's goal is for one in four of its workers to have a military background. As part of that campaign it has started a "wounded warriors" program -- a recruiting drive to hire battle-scarred vets who often have trouble readjusting to civilian life. FINS discussed the program with Brian Neuman, who launched the initiative in 2008 after an Iraqi warhead took his arm and ended his military career on a Fallujah street. Neuman, a 38-year-old former U.S. Army staff sergeant, was inspired by his work with the Wounded Warrior Project, an eight-year-old nonprofit raising awareness about and helping severely wounded service men and women, prior to joining USAA.

Kyle Stock: How many wounded warriors have joined USAA since you signed on?
Brian Neuman: Ballpark -- I would say around 20 severely wounded. My first real job was to define what a wounded warrior was. The interesting things about wounded warriors is you'll have some that want to be known as that person and then you'll have some who don't want anybody to know. I'm always asking these folks what they're comfortable with.

KS: What kind of roles are these soldiers filling?
BN: They're all over the place. Primarily, most of the positions in our company are customer-service positions, dealing with customers over the Internet or over the phone. They go through about a six-month training process.

KS: Have you hired any wounded veterans for more senior positions?
BN: I haven't recruited anyone into a senior-management position, but I do know that we have disabled veterans in management positions.

KS: Can you describe your time in the military?
BN: I joined the military right out of high school in 1991. I got out in 1995 and went to community college for three semesters before joining a carpenter's union. I did that until 9/11 and then I absolutely felt compelled to go back in. I had to go back to Day One basic training all over again. I was in the Army for about 10 years before I got hurt. Lost my left arm pretty high -- almost at the shoulder. That was the most difficult thing to deal with personally. I knew that I wasn't going to be able to go back.

KS: Were you wounded in a firefight?
BN: It was what we call an EFP -- explosively formed penetrator. It came through the back of the Bradley fighting vehicle that I was in. The interpreter sitting next to me was killed, but none of the other guys were hurt. I can't say that it was the worst day of my life, to be honest with you. There was so much other stuff going on, I didn't really have time to sit there and say "Oh this is it; my arm's off." About five minutes later, we were able to get the vehicle to where the medics were. I actually got out of the vehicle with my left arm in my right hand. It was very much like a movie, but when I finally got to the medic and I laid down, I knew that it was going to be OK.

KS: And then you transitioned to civilian life?
BN: I was at Walter Reed for three months. Five or six surgeries later, I retired from the military -- in September 2005. The very next day I started working for a nonprofit organization called the Wounded Warrior Project. It was something that I really had to do. I couldn't lead guys in combat. I couldn't jump out of planes, so I really wanted to use this life-change as a sort of catalyst to help people in a similar position.

KS: What was your role with Wounded Warriors?
BN: I was essentially a benefits liaison officer -- a wounded warrior talking to other wounded warriors. That was an incredibly rewarding job and, in effect, what led me to USAA. I was asked to bring some wounded warriors for a USAA Veteran's Day ceremony. I met the CEO, Gen. Joe Robles Jr., during the ceremony who just in passing had said he really wanted this company to be focused on recruiting more wounded warriors.

KS: What's your day-to-day like? How do you go about finding candidates?
BN: My official job title is military talent manager. My day can vary greatly. I may be at a military specific job fair or disabled-veterans-specific job fairs. Sometimes I help regular recruiters with their positions. . . . A lot of times it's really assisting the military person or the service member. If we see that their resume is kind of off-point, I'll try to redirect them. What I like to do first is talk to them about what they want to do, who they want to work for. I'll bring them out here, show them the site and the job that's being done, and actually introduce them to another wounded warrior. It helps to come out and see it and, in some cases, it does change people's minds.

KS: Some of the soldiers I have talked to said that they struggle with self-promotion when it comes to job hunting and careers. Are there traits that you have to coach these folks on?
BN: It depends on the individual. They've just come away from being part of a team where it's never about you. Another big challenge is folks who are able to talk about nothing but their military service. I like to set them up for success. I'll tell them: "These are the kinds of things that I want you to think about before you go in there."

KS: Do you still do hospital visits?
BN: It's pretty rare that I get a chance to now. If I find that someone from one of my old units is there, I will. But I still am very active with the Wounded Warrior Project.

KS: A lot of soldiers are good with stress and are great leaders. Are there other traits that really help them on the job?
BN: It is a big adjustment for anybody coming out of the military. But the level of discipline and trainability and ability to be part of a team, those are at the very top. They are not the candidates that are going to come back five minutes late from lunch. They may not have the book education of someone coming out of college, but they certainly have much more maturity.

KS: What was the toughest part of the transition to civilian life for you?
BN: You're never completely transitioned, but I would say that in the military we are used to more direct communication. If there's a problem, we know what the chain of command is; we can go to that person and deal with it. It's different in the corporate world. I can't just go directly to the source and take care of it.

The big thing is that you never know if that person is going to be happy or perform well in a job. The real key for me is to know if that wounded warrior candidate is ready to start working eight hours a day in a full-time job.

In a bad economy when these folks need to be making money, they'll push themselves to get back into the working world, but they're not always ready.

KS: Does the large composition of former soldiers at USAA make it easier for these people to make the transition? Is that kind of culture comforting?
BN: You better believe it. Almost 20% of our employees have military experience and that's what a lot of people getting out of the military look for. That's where they feel comfortable.

Write to Kyle Stock

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