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Answering the Call: Preparing Veterans as Civilian Healthcare Leaders

At the July meeting of the American College of Healthcare Executives of Middle Tennessee (ACHEMT), attendees gathered at the Cal Turner Center Ballroom at Meharry Medical College for an insightful program on putting the multifaceted skill sets of American veterans to work as civilian healthcare leaders.

Natasha Kurth, a captain in the U.S. Army transitioning from military to civilian life and availing herself of the Soldier for Life - Transition Assistance Program, spent at least eight hours a day sending hundreds of resumes and applying for positions online. At the first ACHEMT event she attended in November 2015, she met Andrew McDonald of LBMC. That meeting led to her being hired at LifePoint Health. Eighty percent of job candidates get their next job from connections, and Kurth's experience is the classic example that networking is essential.

The esteemed panel for the meeting included:

  • Bruce Green, MD: managing director Deloitte Consulting & chief medical officer for Deloitte's Federal Health practice. The retired lieutenant general was the 20th Air Force Surgeon General;
  • Michael S. Huerter: vice president of operations for Ascension Technologies and retired colonel, U.S. Joint Special Operations;
  • Brian C. Lein, MD, FACS: division vice president, graduate medical education, at HCA's TriStar Health and retired major general in the U.S. Army; and
  • Jameson Norton, MBA, FACHE: CEO of Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital & Clinics, and major in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve.

 

After sharing his experiences from command to command, building and managing hospitals and leading team-based care of patients through natural disasters, Green was frustrated during his transition to civilian life by the lack of teamwork and ability to find decision-makers until he began working on a project with Deloitte. His CMO role, which he's held for over five years, puts his extraordinary skills to work. After decades of leading systems, he said he enjoys his role as a consultant who advises and educates and appreciates the variety of his projects.

A third of veterans expect to double or triple their compensation after transitioning from military to civilian life, but that is often not the case. In fact, some make less. Veterans must consider how much of their compensation is deducted for income taxes and statutory benefits and not spend money until after the deductions are made. Veterans often have financial issues, as well as family issues, and need advice from fellow veterans during the transition process. Another major issue veterans face is that they are often undervalued. Employers lose veterans when leaders fail to take notice and address this.

Lein shared his observations about the power of brotherhood, comradery and love. He said his personal experience at a Somalia hospital overrun with casualties changed his perspective. Despite excelling throughout his education and career, which included serving as U.S. Army Medicine CEO, Lein said his first interview in 38 years was terrifying. Although preparing for the civilian job interview was hard, he knew his experience, expertise and skills running a residency program were transferable.

Lein told attendees location is important and needs to be a family decision. As soon as Lein and his family got off the plane, they agreed that they would not leave Nashville, whatever job he might get. It was not about money. He added a veteran might have been a two-star general but had to be willing to take two steps back when transitioning to a new career. While compromise might be important, one area that should be non-negotiable is that the organization's values and the veteran's personal values must be aligned. If the veteran has talent and communication skills, those will be recognized by the right organization. Third, he continued, the veteran needs to find a bigger purpose within the organization in order to continue being of service.

Norton's military experience included serving as a mobile assault platoon commander and being assigned to the 9/11 force without knowing whether he would be in a raid, rescue or conventional combat reinforcement. Transition and the unknown, he pointed out, can be stressful and traumatic for service members and their families. Norton, who serves as the executive sponsor of the Veteran Group at VUMC, said pursuing the mission in healthcare is complicated and that there are a lot of parallels that can be brought to bear, but he knew he could be enthusiastic about the mission at the VUMC Emergency Department. He also credited the leadership at Acadia, where he started, who told him that when he is ready they would find a place for him. He said Nashville supports its veterans and noted Google, which has plans to hire 5,000 people at its new location in Middle Tennessee, has a vision as to what veterans have to offer.

Huerter had no affiliation with healthcare during his 28 years with the Army. Growing up playing football as a receiver in Texas, then at West Point, he was challenged every day and is comfortable serving on teams that strive for excellence. An infantryman, he served in Desert Storm before completing Ranger School. After a number of overseas engagements, he was selected to serve eight years in the Joint Special Operations Command and spent his last 17 years on combat deployments. Huerter then took a job at West Point and planned to be with the Army for 30 years.

His civilian transition started with a call and then an interview for a position at Ascension Saint Thomas, Ascension Technologies, for which ACHEMT Board President Anna Pannier serves as senior director. Having a blended family with his wife, who grew up in historic Newburg, Tenn., made this a favorable location for the family and piqued his interest. Ascension's mission-based and value-focused foundation also aligned well for him. Recently, Huerter was called to lead Ascension's participation in the Veteran Career Transition Assistance Program, created to help veterans not allowed to re-enlist during the U.S. Army's downsizing to have a soft landing through a network of job sites starting in Alabama, Florida and Georgia.

Additional organizations that help veterans with transition, according to Norton, include Reboot Recovery, Operation Stand Down and Veterans Corporate Council. Lein mentioned Vanderbilt helps veterans advance their education and that HCA is the largest employer of veterans. Green added Deloitte, which does much federal government contract work, sponsors programs that help veterans with mock interviews. Veterans should avail themselves of resources early and often during their transition to the civilian workforce and recognize the value they bring, particularly to mission-oriented, team-based industries like healthcare. Green also said having a veteran as a mentor makes a difference and emphasized the importance of networking and making connections through organizations like ACHEMT.


David A. Weil is a healthcare attorney and adjunct professor at Belmont University. He serves as subcommittee chair of Membership Growth for ACHEMT. For more information, go online to achemt.org.