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Corporate America's Military Opportunity

A version of this opinion article appeared Mar. 27, 2012, on page A13 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Corporate America's Military Opportunity. It is being re-posted here with permission. 

By Ann Curry
NBC News

In his State of the Union address this January, President Obama rang a bell that is still sounding 10 years after our wars began in Afghanistan and Iraq. "At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations," he said about our men and women in uniform. "They're not consumed with personal ambition. They don't obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together. Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example."

We can do better than imagine. We can remember.

As World War II drew to a close, many Americans worried about how to assimilate returning veterans. Some feared the economic boom of the war would quickly fall back to the hard times of the Great Depression as millions in uniform arrived home looking for work. But these military veterans—the Greatest Generation, in Tom Brokaw's phrase—had the resilience and leadership skills to become not a weight but an engine driving the economy and the American Century.

Whether today's military men and women—the best-trained and most experienced military force in the history of our nation—can similarly drive our economy largely depends on whether we remember our history.

After World War II, veterans were rewarded with the G.I. bill and favorable housing loans. Perhaps as important, they came to be seen as a boon to any business that wanted to recruit disciplined, mission-oriented and motivated workers. Veterans then even wore military veteran pins on their lapels because it singled them out as worthy of special consideration as potential employees.

Today's veterans, many of whom enlisted after America was attacked on 9/11, are as deserving as their World War II predecessors. And putting them to work may well be the most selfish thing our nation can do right now. Where else might any business find better, more "can-do" men and women?

When a person has been repeatedly willing to run toward battle under orders despite the risk of death, imagine what he or she might do to inspire a company to find the grit to succeed. How do you say "no" to working overtime when your colleague is a former war veteran who is willing to say "yes?"

About veterans whose skills have been honed in hostile environments, Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn notes that, "Whether they're part of a factory floor team, whether they're part of an executive group trying to steer a company in a certain direction, cohesion, coherence, the ability to follow others and work with others toward a common goal is incredibly important in generating those widgets and the clothes and the computers and the smartphones of GDP."

The good news is that corporate America is beginning to wake up to the benefits of bringing a fighting spirit into their companies. Executives are learning that despite misconceptions, the vast majority of veterans—82%-90% of men and 80% of women returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the RAND Corporation—do not have a post-traumatic stress syndrome that could affect their readiness to work.

Prudential, FedEx, Gamestop, JetBlue, J.P. Morgan Chase, Coca-Cola, Sears, AT&T, NBC Universal and its parent company Comcast are among an increasing number of companies that are now seeking to hire veterans.

Gary Taylor, a top executive at power company Entergy (and a retired captain in the Air Force), puts it this way: "The skills that they bring back are a real competitive advantage, whether they're electricians, mechanics, computer scientists, engineers—that skill seems to fit well."

And even when a skill does not fit exactly, why would anyone doubt whether former Apache helicopter pilots or company master sergeants would be trainable? The sooner more American businesses realize the value of this sudden wealth of returning military veterans, the sooner we can stop worrying about our economy.

Our military veterans have exceeded all expectations. What could our businesses, our economy and our nation accomplish if we put their talents and courage to work here at home?

Ms. Curry, an NBC News anchor and correspondent, has traveled six times to Iraq and Afghanistan and is a daughter of a war veteran. On March 28 on NBC's "Today" show, she will help broadcast "Hiring Our Heroes Today," a nationwide hiring fair put on by NBC News and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, hosted at the USS Intrepid museum.