Fully realizing the benefits that vets can bring to civilian life means changing the distorted way they are perceived.

By DAVID MCCORMICK

Dec. 6, 2015 6:32 p.m. ET

A newspaper writer laments: “On their return home after their long absence from society, and from industry, many of these brave men . . . find it difficult to get the opportunity at once to return to their old avocations. Their places in the workshops or elsewhere are filled up; and having but little money, and having lost to some extent the facility for securing employment or the friends who might have helped them to find it, they are greatly discouraged and disheartened, and their families suffer.”

Sound familiar? That’s the New York Times in June 1865. And yet here we are, 150 years on, with vets dying while waiting for medical care, 50,000 vets homeless, unemployment among post-9/11 vets consistently above the average, and just half of those who go to college actually finishing.

The tragedy persists, despite repeated recitations of the grim facts. We can’t change how America treats vets until we change how America perceives them. That requires stories, not facts. As the supreme storyteller Joseph Conrad said, “My task is to make you hear, to make you feel, and, above all, to make you see.”

What stories should we be telling about vets? Not those we tell today. According to research by the veterans-support organization Got Your 6 (I’m on its advisory board), many people think of vets as “damaged leaders.” No wonder. The media and the entertainment industry treat veterans as heroes or charity cases. Hollywood being what it is, even the heroes on screen seem like they couldn’t hold down a regular job.

All this obscures the millions of vets who want to reintegrate into civilian life. Worse, it makes many Americans uneasy around them. Sure, this guy could run the heck out of our logistics, but is he a ticking time-bomb?

Actually, when danger erupts, the military guy is more likely to be charging to the rescue, like the Americans who tackled the terrorist on a train in France in August. You’re much safer with a vet next to you.

Not that vets don’t need practical help. I’ve spent my career hiring vets whenever possible since I became one. The military’s black-and-white command environment is completely different from the civilian world. Most vets can’t write a civilian résumé. They don’t understand how important their leadership experience is. But they also don’t get that they won’t be given people to lead right away, any more than they would give a platoon to a bank president.

Once they do get it, however, they offer gifts of leadership, stamina, discipline and loyalty honed in a school tougher than most of us ever step into. That’s why we see so many vets running big companies, including J&J, P&GGeneral MotorsMcDonald’s and Walgreens. After 50 years, the number of vets on Capitol Hill is growing. Here is another greatest generation in the making, ours to foster or neglect.

What we really most need is a long march through the institutions, to borrow a phrase. Send your kids to ROTC-friendly colleges. Don’t shell out for movies that offer a limited, fantasy view of the military. We must praise our vets’ service. But praise is easy. What’s hard is helping vets return to civilian life. That will happen when we recognize most aren’t Hollywood heroes or damaged goods, but civic assets.

Mr. McCormick, a Gulf War combat veteran, is president of the investment-management firm Bridgewater Associates.