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Veterans of recent wars confront grim employment landscape

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 30, 2010; 12:25 AM

IN HAUPPAUGE, N.Y. During the seven months that he was stationed in Iraq, Joe Janssen served as an assaultman, a job that involved manning the turret gun in a Humvee and using shoulder-fired rockets and other explosives to support his fellow Marines.

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Those skills were invaluable in war. But they are of little use now that he is back home in Hauppauge, N.Y., a Long Island hamlet. He has applied for job after job since leaving active duty well over a year ago, but his efforts have proved futile.

The Marine reservist used his veterans benefits to finish his bachelor's degree in criminal justice. Now he is scouring for a job in law enforcement while he waits for his name to rise to the top of the New York state police hiring list - which is unlikely to be anytime soon, given the state's severe budget problems.

"I have a passion to be a cop," said Janssen, 23, a fitness buff who dabbles in mixed martial arts. "But no one is hiring."

Janssen's experience is common among the 2 million veterans of the long-running wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As they return home to the worst labor market in generations, the veterans who are publicly venerated for their patriotism and service are also having a harder time than most finding work, federal data show.

(SPECIAL REPORT: The hard road back)

While their nonmilitary contemporaries were launching careers during the nearly 10 years the nation has been at war, troops were repeatedly deployed to desolate war zones. And on their return to civilian life, these veterans are forced to find their way in a bleak economy where the skills they learned at war have little value.

Some experts say the grim employment landscape confronting veterans challenges the veracity of one of the central recruiting promises of the nation's all-volunteer force: that serving in the military will make them more marketable in civilian life.

"That [promise] works great in peacetime," said Lawrence J. Korb, an assistant secretary of defense for manpower under President Ronald Reagan who is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "But that does not work too well in war. . . . If you are in there four years and deployed twice, what kind of skills have you learned other than counterinsurgency?"

The unemployment rate for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans was 10 percent in November, compared with 9.1 percent for non-veterans, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unemployment rates for combat veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been higher than the overall rate since at least 2005, according to the bureau.

Top military officials stand by their promise, even as they express concern about the unemployment rate of veterans. They emphasize that veterans are driven by patriotism and have access to an array of programs to help them find work, including preferences for government jobs, guaranteed interviews with large employers, and tuition reimbursement and stipends for college.

"I continue to be very worried about the unemployment rate among our vets. They and their families have sacrificed an awful lot, and all they want in return is a chance to get back to their lives and to their dreams," said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.


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