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Michael Banks is a returning veteran. He grew up in Oklahoma City, and served in the Army for six years. He was deployed in both Iraq and Afghanistan, as a truck driver, and the military is — professionally speaking — all he's ever known.
He's also not a real person. He's the main character in the interactive simulation called "Reinventing Michael Banks." It's a choose-your-own-adventure journey for veterans through the hiring process.
This week's shootings by a former Navy soldier reservist raised lots of questions about the mental health of veterans.
It's the stories of these incidents that tend to make some civilians a bit wary, especially when it comes to the workplace.
According to the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University, the unemployment rate for veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan is nearly 3 percent higher than that of the general population.
Sharon Sloane is the founder of the Potomac-based production company WILL Interactive, which has made more than 80 interactive simulations, many of them for the US military. Subjects range from preventing foreclosure to hostage negotiation, to military suicide prevention.
WILL ran a contest in the fall of 2012 to zero in on a social issue that could benefit from this sort of interactive movie — but couldn't necessarily afford the $500,000 fee for making the video. The winning idea came from The Coming Home Project, a nonprofit based in San Francisco that helps Iraq and Afghanistan veterans reintegrate into society.
To create the film, Sloane and her staff immerse in research for every decision Michael Banks makes. They speak with employers, mental health professionals, vets, and then boil down the experiences to the most important lessons a vet can learn to present themselves to employers.
Dr. Joseph Bobrow consulted on the video's content and is the founder of the Coming Home Project. Bobrow says having a job can be "the most important bridge back into civilian life." But, he says, the transition can be bumpy.
Take the experience of Rodney Roldan, an actor in the film, and also a Veteran. He earned two college degrees while in the Navy, which he thought would help him find a job afterwards. Turns out, he was over qualified for every job he applied for. He felt like hiring mangers didn't understand his experiences in the Navy.
"I feel like a lot of them don't look into what the military is really about," he says. "To look at the big picture, to say this needs to go here, this needs to go here, and then we can have an operating machine."
Roldan says it took him awhile to learn to use an interview question about his specific degrees, to discuss the value of his broader military experience.
In the video, you see this scene both from Banks' perspective and from his potential boss's point of view. Sharon Sloane says seeing how military culture is perceived from the outside is pivotal in helping vets learn how to best present themselves in the future, and avoid the stereotype of a vet with a short fuse.
"Is every veteran a ticking bomb, absolutely not! Are there some veterans who have emotional issues? Of course," Sloane says.
Dr. Bobrow, of the Coming Home Project, says in the past, veterans' issues — from homelessness to PTSD and depression — have been discussed in isolation. But that's now changing.
"The best and brightest of the field are arguing for an integrated view, and realize they all influence one another. You can't take the suicide epidemic and detachment that from employment. What I'm coming to see is employment is a key, if not the key player in this very interconnected influences on the life-space of a veteran.
The video will be released online, and available to Veterans and employers at no cost. Its target release date is this upcoming Veterans Day.
[Music: "Something You Lost" by Melodium from Coloribus]