What Happens When Soldiers Become Civilians Again?

Three men fought together on the front lines in Iraq, but faced new perils and different fates when they came back. Meet America's servicemen as they return from war.

What Happens When Soldiers Become Civilians Again?Courtesy Scott Quilty

In 2011, the jobless rate among Iraq and Afghanistan vets averaged 12.1 percent, compared with 8.7 percent for the general population. Even as those government numbers showed some improvement in the early part of this year, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) reported that 17 percent of its members were unemployed, unable to convince prospective employers that skills learned in the field are an asset on the job.

Quilty’s current boss, Drew Mitchell, is an exception. Even though Quilty had little experience in design or in business and was trained only for military duty, Mitchell could imagine how Quilty’s expertise in planning missions and leading others under stressful conditions during his Army service would transfer to the workplace. The confidence displayed by the former captain in his job interview impressed Mitchell—“I believe in myself, and I don’t fail,” Quilty told him—and Mitchell, founder and president of Fathom, hired him.

Still, Mitchell freely admits that “If I were to place an ad and get a whole bunch of résumés, Scott’s would not make the short list.” It was the two men’s previous connection that sealed the deal—the kind of connection that most returning vets don’t have: They’d met a couple of years earlier through Survivor Corps, the international nonprofit organization where Quilty served as U.S. program manager.

Losing his right arm and leg ended what Quilty had hoped would be a full Army career, but he soon found himself out in front on another perilous mission—the return to civilian life. That was hard, but Quilty traveled the distance. So did Quilty’s radioman Nathan Fletcher, with some guidance from his old platoon leader. Another member of their platoon, however, Fletcher’s pal Daniel Duefield, did not. As too many vets have learned, casualties don’t just happen in combat. “I’ve seen so many folks exit the service and struggle, trying to find some traction,” says Quilty, now 32. “It’s like the space shuttle reentering the atmosphere. They go through radio blackout for a few minutes, and there’s that danger period.”

After he was wounded, Quilty spent 18 months recuperating. To the frustration of his therapist at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he was more interested in landing a job than learning how to bicycle on his prosthetic leg or taking kayak trips with other wounded veterans. While still receiving outpatient therapy at Walter Reed, he started a three-month internship with the U.S. Agency for International Development, a bridge back to the civilian world. To prepare for the job, Quilty went on a shopping spree at Brooks Brothers—he had rented suits for weddings, but for most formal events he still wore his military dress uniform. “You have to learn how to dress like everyone else,” he says.

In his new suits—which hid his prosthetic arm and leg—he looked like everyone else, but he didn’t feel like them. Riding the subway in Washington, crowded with commuters, could put Quilty into a cold sweat as he pondered what would become of his life. “You have the overwhelming feeling that everyone else has a sense of purpose, places to go, things to do,” he says. “You’re in civilian clothes, trying to make yourself fit.” And he did; after the internship, he landed a paid job at Survivor Corps.

Quilty has tried to improve the odds for his Army colleagues, sharing the hard-earned knowledge he picked up during his own transition. As platoon leader, his job had been preparing his men for war; in his mind, that obligation didn’t end on the battlefield. He coached them on résumé writing and interview techniques, telling them to sell themselves instead of giving the clipped, to-the-point answers expected in the military; a soldier’s disciplined bearing, Quilty knew, can come off as stiff and unfriendly in the civilian workplace. He took a friend with him back to Brooks Brothers, where the saleswoman recognized him. “My buddy just got out,” he told her, “and he needs some suits.”

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