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Unemployment crisis among veterans spurs call to action in Congress

By Zerlina Maxwell
Wednesday, August 3, 2011 8:56 EDT
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While dismal employment numbers often lead the news — unemployment, for instance remains just over 9% — and
the fight over the debt ceiling left fixing the jobless recovery on the back burner, some Americans who went to war at the behest of their president are finding the peace back home slightly harder to navigate.

The Army Times reports that official unemployment levels for young veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan had risen to 15.2 percent. But Paul Rieckhoff, the Executive Director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans for America, told The Army Times that internal polling put the unemployment numbers closer to 20 percent.

One suspected reason, according to the IAVA, is that employers are aware of the high levels of post traumatic stress disorder reported in veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and thus may be resistant to hiring veterans who have finished recent tours in combat. Another concern for employers is that veterans returning from a tour abroad but who remain in the reserves may be called for another tour, which would require employers to hold a needed position open while the service member is abroad.

But aside from employer perceptions of PTSD and the challenges of hiring reservists, the transition to the civilian workforce often proves challenging even for those veterans who are college educated. Nick Workman of Ellensburg, Washington served as a commissioned Army officer from 2002-2006, completing one tour in Iraq. Workman’s transition to civilian life has been extremely challenging and he believes that employers are unable or unwilling to see how the skills he learned in the military can translate to civilian managerial work.

“The biggest challenge I face that is related to my search for gainful employment is being able to get employers to understand how my experience as an infantry officer applies to the civilian workplace,” he said. “Being an infantry officer is the most prestigious and challenging field the military has to offer and I have had an extremely difficult time getting potential employers to recognize that,” he added. After nearly 5 years of unemployment, Workman now works part-time and supplements his insufficient income with food stamps.

Several other veterans who spoke to Raw Story felt that employers should be more understanding of the practical challenges that may come with recruiting veterans, such as their inability to conduct in-person interviews because many of them may not be residing in the place they plan to settle after returning from duty. Others said that the lack of training by the military for the transition to the civilian economy represented a severe problem for many servicemembers.

But, at least the problem of veteran unemployment has not completely escaped some in Congress. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), chairwoman of the Senate Veteran Affairs Committee, introduced The Hiring Heroes Act of 2011, designed to improve “transition, rehabilitation, vocational, and unemployment benefits to members of the Armed Forces and veterans, and for other purposes.” Under the new law, the Department of Defense would set up a Transitional Assistance Program (TAP) to provide veterans with counseling and job training, and would follow up with them to ensure they have successfully secured employment. The TAP program would also include mentoring for many of the troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan between the ages of 20 to 24. The TAP would provide all veterans with assessments to help them determine what civilian employment options are most suitable to their skills and experiences.

If he were in a room with congressional leaders Workman says he would tell them that his “situation is not unique.” Workman says he thought that by joining the military he was “making a smart decision that would prepare [him] as a leader for virtually any situation, work-related or otherwise.” But without some assistance from Congress, Workman and his fellow veterans will continue to find themselves increasingly marginalized in a tough economy.

[Image taken by Sgt. David N. Russell, via the U.S. Army Flickr]

 
 
 
 
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