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Veterans of recent wars confront grim employment landscape

By Michael A. Fletcher
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.

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.

The experiences of four Iraq veterans, all attached to the same Marine reserve unit in New York, are emblematic: One is gainfully employed; he said he thinks he was hired because he is a veteran. Another has managed to get part-time work after a long and difficult search. A third is in school, with the help of government veterans benefits. And Janssen continues to look for work, a process that has nourished a desire to return to active duty.

"I'm hoping to get deployed," Janssen said. "Besides wanting to go to Afghanistan, I could use the money."

Calvin Artis, 22, joined the Marine Corps in March 2006, when he was 17. He said he was driven by a desire to serve his country and expand his career options.

"It was either that or get a job at McDonald's or Home Depot, or go back to live with my mom," said Artis, who before enlisting earned his general equivalency diploma in the National Guards' Youth Challenge Program, which works with high- risk youths in a quasi-military structure. But Artis says his civilian job options are little improved.

Three years ago, he was patrolling the streets of Fallujah, Iraq, from behind a machine gun mounted atop a Humvee. Later, he was stationed aboard a ship that cruised the Arabian and Mediterranean seas as part of a "911" force that could be quickly deployed to back up troops on the ground.

Now, Artis is bunking with his brother's family in southern New Jersey as he tries to sort out his future. He has twice taken the New York City police exam, but he remains far down the hiring list. Meanwhile, he has applied for dozens of other jobs, at Toys 'R' Us, Radio Shack, Wal-Mart, McDonald's and several security firms - all carefully cataloged on a spreadsheet he keeps on his laptop - but few employers responded with as much as a phone call.

"Everybody says, 'We support the troops,' " Artis said. "But a lot of people turn away when it is time to return the favor."

In late September, he landed a part-time job at the deli counter of Quick Chek, a sunny convenience store attached to a gas station in Manchester, N.J. The job pays $7.50 an hour, and Artis got it only after pestering the manager with phone calls "for the better part of a week."

Artis said he is considering going to school and plans to return to active duty if the economy does not improve. "Knowing what I know now, I would have stayed in," he said. "At least there are job security and benefits when you are in."

Analysts offer several reasons why newly returned combat troops often struggle to find work. For one, the types of skills that troops hone during war - teamwork, mission focus, the ability to operate under extreme pressure - are often misunderstood or undervalued by employers.

In addition, more than one in five recent combat veterans claim service-related disabilities, including post-traumatic stress disorder. That has left veterans burdened with a complicated legacy: Although the public admires their service, it also sees combat veterans as especially prone to mental illness, substance abuse and violence.

Some analysts say that stigma is one reason that veterans often earn less than comparable workers - a gap that lingers long after they leave active duty.

If people perceive many combat veterans to be troubled, they also express a willingness to work with or befriend them, said Meredith A. Kelykamp, a University of Maryland sociologist, who has done extensive research on public attitudes toward veterans.

"A lot of people when they look at Afghanistan and Iraq vets, the first thing they think is post-traumatic stress," said Janssen, adding that he suffers no fallout from his time in Iraq. "Is he normal? Can he sleep at night? Is he reliable? I think that's what employers think."

Artis ruefully recalled that during one job interview, the hiring manager turned to a colleague and, pointing at Artis, said: "Guess what he used to do? He used to shoot people."

"I just thought to myself, 'Really?' " Artis said, shaking his head.

In recent years, the federal government has bolstered aid for veterans seeking to further their education. The post-Sept. 11, 2001, GI Bill provides combat veterans more assistance with college tuition, as well as stipends for books and living expenses.

Meanwhile, the Defense, Veterans Affairs and Labor departments offer skills training, assessment and other services to help veterans get jobs. Last year, President Obama signed an executive order establishing offices in federal agencies responsible for identifying job opportunities for veterans.

Some analysts say the educational and other benefits available to veterans - including immediate unemployment insurance - are also likely contributors to their high joblessness rates.

"It could be they are going to college. And it could be that they are accessing certain benefits that are available to them," said Beth Asch, a senior economist at the Rand Corp. "They could be more likely to go to college now because they have educational benefits that other people don't."

To be sure, some veterans are able to land good jobs on returning home. John Louis, 24, who served at Iraq's Camp Korean Village with Janssen, works as an electrician's apprentice, helping to wire new offices in a high-rise on Manhattan's East Side. He makes about $20 an hour, and there is plenty of overtime.

"I have a feeling that the only reason I got this job is because I had the Marine Corps on my résumé," he said.

David Fuertes, 23, also feels like he is on track. A TOW missile gunner in Iraq, he drives a tricked-out red sports car and attends St. John's University. He also is a member of the New York City Police Department Cadets Corps, which is an apprenticeship program. Once Fuertes completes his degree, he plans to join the police force and, eventually, the Drug Enforcement Administration.

"My Marine experience, I wouldn't trade it for anything," Fuertes said. "The economy sucks. My friends who have no high school diploma or GED, they're stuck doing odd jobs or nothing. I look at my friends, not to brag, but I am the most successful. Now, some of them are asking me about joining."

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