Everyone says they want to hire veterans. Big U.S. firms have pledged through the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to hire more than 200,000 over the next five years. Congress has delivered tax credits worth as much as $5,600 to any business willing to hire an unemployed veteran — $9,600 if the vet is disabled.
President Obama has made the moral case. “No one who fights for this country overseas should ever have to fight for a job,” he said as he laid a wreath in Arlington National Cemetery last fall.
Here in Oklahoma, Bolton knows better. When hiring managers flip through his binder of résumés, they aren’t thinking about whether the nation has an obligation to its combat veterans. They are weighing whether they can really afford to take on one more employee in this uncertain economy, whether it makes sense to wait just a few more months.
The questions that consume Bolton, meanwhile, are specific to a population of ex-soldiers struggling with a particular set of postwar problems. How can he help a solid Guard captain with a forgettable résuméshine? How does he find a job for a 35-year-old soldier who can’t remember to pay her electricity bill? What can he do to help a soldier hold on to his job when he says he came home from combat “hating humanity”?
Each of these questions is, in its own way, a legacy of America’s wars.
‘I am going to give you a gift’
At first, Bolton didn’t think it would be hard to find work for Guard soldiers. He knew that the unemployment rate for post-Sept. 11 veterans was high — 9.4 percent in February, compared with 7.7 percent for the general population, according to the Labor Department. But Oklahoma’s oil and gas sector was booming.
Elsewhere Americans were weary of the wars, but in Oklahoma, support for the 45th Brigade seemed strong. The unit suffered 14 deaths in Afghanistan during a tough stretch of fighting in the fall of 2011. Each of the losses was covered on local television news and mourned in moments of silence at high school football games. When the brigade came home in the spring, cheering, hooting, whistling crowds were there. “I just can’t tell you how proud we are of you,” the governor said.
Eleven months later, the cheering over, the war back to being an afterthought, Bolton invited Capt. Monte Johnson, 35, to lunch to talk about his job search. Johnson was still wearing his black pinstripe suit from a morning hiring fair. He was a solid officer with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. In November, his commanders had selected him to lead a 99-soldier artillery battery.