The Next Greatest Generation
Veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan need help with the transition to civilian life and their next career—and that’s where Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz comes in.
For the past year, Starbucks has aimed to round out its reputation for frothy frappuccinos and global coffee domination with a noble cause: veterans’ issues.
The war in Afghanistan is winding down and boots are (for the most part) off the ground in Iraq, and with the shift into peacetime, 1 million veterans are returning from overseas and entering civilian life. American soldiers in the line of fire are fading from nightly news reports, and after years of drawn-out warfare by an all-volunteer army, there is little fanfare for fresh-off-the-plane soldiers.
After America’s wars in the 20th century, a spotlight was focused on those returning from combat. But less than 1 percent of Americans served in Iraq or Afghanistan, and now, as the population of aging veterans from the days of conscription disappears, most of the population will be left without strong military ties.
That has created a bifurcated society, says Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who has adopted veterans’ issues as his cause and published a book of stories in time for Veterans Day. “The worst thing that could happen here is, as the wars wind down, people come home that there isn’t an opportunity to honor and pay great respect to [them],” he says. “If we don’t do that, it will become a distant memory, and that would be tragic.”
In the coming years, such an outcome could have devastating effects: Without public support for veterans’ issues, there’s little political support, and the commitments America has long promised those who serve—pensions, education, health care—could come to an unceremonious end.
That’s why Schultz and Washington Post journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran teamed up to write For Love of Country: What Our Veterans Can Teach Us About Citizenship, Heroism, and Sacrifice, a 10-story collection of tales from veterans on and off the battlefield. On Veterans Day, the second half of the public awareness campaign popped: Bruce Springsteen, Rihanna, and Eminem performed at the “Concert for Valor” on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
For Schultz, the interest in veterans’ issues began after a visit to West Point in 2011. Up to that point he’d rarely had contact with people in uniform, and he was immediately taken with the cadets, he says. In the years since, the Schultz Family Foundation has pledged $30 million to help veterans reintegrate back home, and Schultz has campaigned his fellow business titans to fold veteran initiatives into their companies. Starbucks recently committed to hiring 10,000 veterans in the next five years. (Proceeds from the book will go to the foundation and an initiative called Onward Veterans to smooth the transition into civilian life.)
“What we have to do as business leaders is recognize they may not have the exact skill base for the job,” Schultz says, “but their experience is so comprehensive that more often than not they are more than qualified for that job.” He sounds especially keen on the idea of hiring veterans within human resources departments so they can work with other incoming vets on the transition.
“Many Americans don’t have the skin in the game,” says Chandrasekaran. “They have not truly understood who’s gone to serve, what they’ve done, and what they can offer when they come back home.”
Before writing For Love of Country, Chandrasekaran spent years reporting abroad from Iraq and Afghanistan. But what spurred him to action was a Washington Post study of the post-9/11 veteran population. The result that particularly stuck out to him, he says, was that 55 percent of returning soldiers said they feel disconnected from civilian life. To bridge that divide, veterans need a more accommodating hiring process and assistance with moving from bases into homes, he says: “Then they start to be seen as who they really are rather than stereotypes and characters.”
He says he worries that stories focused on struggling veterans with grievous injuries or difficulties assimilating into everyday life—though they are vital to wider understanding—will turn veterans into a one-dimensional sob story. Or that anomalies, like veterans who go on shooting rampages, overshadow the vast majority who function in and contribute to society.
Schultz and Chandrasekaran says they know that if they can turn these statistics into normal people, one story at a time, the country will celebrate its veterans not as a charitable cause but as a productive and fruitful part of society.
“When Rajiv and I travel to bases, to the Pentagon, to Walter Reed Memorial Hospital, and talk to someone who served or a mother who lost a son, or a boy who lost a father, it’s no longer 2 million people, it’s one person right in front of you,” Schultz says. “We asked: Once you are exposed to this level of emotion and personal sacrifice, the question is, what are you going to do about it? You just can’t walk away.”