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Veterans battle PTSD stigma -- even if they don't have it

Fresh from a tour of duty in Iraq where he earned a Bronze Star, Ryan Gallucci didn’t expect a simple job interview to be such a memorably unpleasant experience.

“I was interviewing with a P.R. agency when my military service came up. Some of the questions got a little prying.  ‘Oh, so what did you do over there? And what was that like?’ ” 

Though he was called back for subsequent interviews, Gallucci said the experience left a “sour taste in my mouth.” Now the deputy legislative director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization, Gallucci suspects the interviewer for that other job may have been more curious about his mental health than his experiences in Iraq.

Research shows he may be right: Some employers are wary of hiring veterans because of potential mental health issues.

“There’s a whole host of questions you can’t legally ask, but I must say that somehow in interviews it comes out,” says Jim Pabis, a Colonel in the New York Army National Guard and Iraq combat vet who runs an executive search firm in Saratoga Springs, NY.

Nearly half of employers -- 46 percent -- said PTSD or other mental health issues were challenges in hiring employees with military experience, according to a 2010 Society of Human Resource Management survey. And a 2011 survey of 831 hiring managers by the Apollo Research Institute found that 39 percent were "less favorable" toward hiring military personnel when considering war-related psychological disorders.

About 20 percent of Iraq or Afghanistan veterans will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an anxiety disorder brought on by living through extremely stressful or life-threatening events; the more tours of duty, the greater the risk of PTSD. It can be devastating if untreated and lead to depression, panic attacks and drug abuse, and can increase the risk of suicide. Veterans commit one in five of all suicides in the U.S.

Yet recent high-profile news about veteran violence and its possible links to PTSD may speak louder than realities of the illness. It’s treatable, rarely leads to violent acts and is not uncommon -- six to eight percent of Americans will develop PTSD in their lifetime.

“In the first place, most veterans do not develop PTSD. The minority that do have the same kinds of reactions of people exposed to a hurricane or a car accident,” says Josef Ruzek, Ph.D., director of the dissemination and training division at the National Center for PTSD. 

The PTSD fear factor isn’t new. “We’ve seen the stigma of the crazy war veteran before.  It was especially harsh after Vietnam, when the nation didn't really have the kind of support for men and women who serve in the military that they have today,” says Gallucci.

That support, which includes attempts by the Department of Veterans Affairs to educate the public about PTSD and to encourage affected vets to seek treatment, may have unintended consequences. More civilian employers know that servicemen and women are at greater risk for PTSD.

“There’s been a major cultural shift in how soldiers speak up about the mental toll of war, but also a potential backlash against our attempt to de-stigmatize PTSD,” Gallucci says.

Finding a civilian job can already by a hurdle, particularly for Iraq-war era vets. Unemployment rates have been consistently higher for this group than non-civilians of the same ages.  According to a recent report by the Department of Veterans Affairs, male veterans ages 18 to 24 who have served since September of 2001 have an unemployment rate of just over 29 percent, compared 17.6 percent of nonveterans of the same ages.  

There’s no evidence that the higher unemployment rate for young vets is due to fears about mental health issues. In fact, research shows there is a positive bias toward hiring a veteran if she or he has a clearly transferable, comparable skill set to a non-veteran, says Meredith Kleykamp, Ph.D, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, who researches consequences of military service and is married to a veteran.

There may also be a discrepancy in how veterans perceive they are being treated, Kleykamp says, versus how they actually are.

“So few people are actually serving in these wars.  There may be employer ignorance. And vets may feel there is a lack of understanding from people and employers that they meet,” she says.

Still, while experts welcome greater public awareness of the difficulties veterans may face, that growing understanding might work against them when it comes to presumptions of mental health.

“Civilians may feel like, ‘How could he not be damaged by something like that?” Kleykamp says.

For more on Hiring our Heroes, an initiative from NBC News and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that aims to get veterans back into the workforce, click here. Learn more about job fairs for veterans here. Below, watch NBC's Janet Shamlian discuss job fairs for spouses of veterans.

NBC's Janet Shamlian discusses job fairs for spouses of veterans, and NBC's Kevin Tibbles talks with veteran Brad Watson about how military experience can be translated to workplace qualifications on a resume.