American citizens love their soldiers, a phenomenon that sometimes mystifies people from other countries. Indeed, the level of admiration and support we have for our troops is unique to the United States. For those who offer their service and their life to defend and advance our interests, Americans are quick to offer thanks and praise, as they should. Our veterans and active duty troops deserve it.

Yet, for a country that so clearly respects and appreciates its military, we sometimes forget that after the service is done, our veterans must have access to the opportunities, jobs and rewards they fought to protect. This, unfortunately, is not always the case. Even as the overall American unemployment statistics begin to show some hope for the future, according to the U.S. Bureau for Labor and Statistics, unemployment rates amongst veterans and their families continue to climb, currently around 12 percent or about 1 million veterans.

To advance the efforts of servicemen and women and their families in securing employment, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched the Hiring our Heroes program in partnership with the White House’s Joining Forces initiative. As a part of that, during the Chamber’s 4th Annual Business Steps Up event, First Lady Michelle Obama and the Chamber’s Vice President of Veterans’ Employment Programs Kevin Schmiegel announced a pledge by some of America’s biggest companies to hire 100,000 veterans and military spouses by 2014. This is, as the First Lady put it, unprecedented.

“Each of these steps is going to make a real difference,” she said. “Not just for our vets, but also for your businesses and more importantly for this entire nation, and that’s really what all of these efforts are about.”

Securing the homeland is not only about protecting our borders, resisting attack, and preparing for emergencies, manmade and natural. It is also about ensuring those in service to America have the security they need to raise families, start businesses and enjoy the American dream to which they offered their lives. With America’s part in the war in Iraq nearly complete, soldiers are returning home to begin the next chapter in their lives. It is incumbent upon us that we do as much to ensure their security as they did for ours.

From a patriotic perspective, hiring veterans and their families is honorable and important. For most businesses, however, the need to turn a profit often trumps more intangible motivations. Put another way, company’s hire not out of a sense of obligation but to satisfy their employment needs. It is important to understand then that America’s veterans and their families are not owed employment. Through their military training and experience, they have earned it.

“The case for hiring our heroes is an easy one,” Chamber president and CEO Tom Donohue recently wrote. “They have sacrificed for our nation, and our nation should honor their sacrifices with opportunities. But it isn’t just the right thing to do—it’s also the smart thing.”

Consider the skills required for most employment – leadership, decision making, responsibility and team work. Veterans have these in spades, lessons learned not in the slow climb up the employment ladder but in life and death situations. Learning to work well under pressure is a good deal different flipping burgers than it is in a fire fight. Simply put, veterans have the skills employers need, and our duty to our servicemen and women is to ensure America’s warriors receive the support they need to transition from military to private sector work.

Schmiegel, himself a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, noted three strategic initiatives the Chamber is pursuing to this end:

  • Digital Support – An online architecture that gives veterans the tools, information and resources they need; this in addition to the ongoing hiring fares.
  • Veterans Employment Advisory Council – A group including 16 of the country’s biggest employers, together accounting for 23 million jobs, focused on generating job-creation ideas for veterans.
  • A Call to Industry – The Chamber is calling on its nearly 3 million member companies and the 3.5 million veteran small business owners in America to do their part.

If we are going to secure our homeland and our citizens from threats to not only their person and property but their livelihood as well, we must offer a concerted effort to help veterans and their families find work. Non-Americans sometimes do not understand our love for our troops, mistaking it for a love of war. This is not the case. America’s servicemen and women are some of the best among us, and we admire them because of the virtues they embody – selflessness, dedication and honor. We also support them because of the great benefit they offer our country, both in service to our military and as hardworking Americans elevating the strength of our private sector.

Rich Cooper blogs primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More