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Tuesday, May 26, 2009 at 12 Noon ET

The Penalty for Serving: After Iraq, a National Guardsman Struggles to Find a Job

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Craig Lewis and Christian Davenport
Captain, Army National Guard; Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 26, 2009; 12:00 PM

Craig Lewis is a helicopter pilot with combat experience and a college degree. So why didn't anyone seem interested in hiring him after he returned from Iraq?

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Craig Lewis, a captain in the Army National Guard, was online Tuesday, May 26 to discuss his efforts to find a job and return to life at home after serving in Iraq. Joining him was Christian Davenport, a Washington Post staff writer who covers military affairs and chronicles Lewis's story in his new book, "As You Were: To War and Back With the Black Hawk Battalion of the Virginia National Guard."

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Christian Davenport: Greetings,

Welcome to the chat. Craig and I are eager to get to your questions about the piece. But I wanted to first give a little background about how I came to write about Craig and some of his fellow soldiers returning to civilian life after Iraq. I embedded with their unit, the Virginia Army National Guard's 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment, for a couple of weeks at the beginning of 2007, then flew home with them and spent the next year following their reintegration. I wanted to tell this story because the National Guard has played such an important role in this war, and yet has been, I think, overlooked.

Unlike the active duty, which returns home to big bases and are surrounded by fellow service members, the citizen-soldiers of the Guard come almost immediately back to civilian life, where they're expected to pick up where they left off. And as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, they face multiple tours and repeat the jarring process of leaving families and civilian jobs again and again. Then there are the domestic emergencies they respond to, such as Hurricane Katrina.

Craig's story obviously focuses on what can happen to reservists' civilian careers, and let's be clear: soldiers aren't the only ones who sacrifice. The deployments create quite a hardship on employers as well, who often have to scramble to fill vacancies on short notice. But there are often other issues that come up, some of which I explored in the book. For example, one of the soldiers I followed was asked, eight days after he got home, if he would return to Iraq with another unit in a few months -- a decision that weighed heavily on him. Another was a Vietnam veteran, who deployed to Iraq at age 58, a time when his wife thought they should be thinking about retirement, not war. Another was a medic who struggled to get treatment for her post traumatic stress disorder.

And then there is Craig, who not only volunteered to serve his country but to have his story told here. I'm grateful he, and the others in the book, allowed me into their lives.

Let's go.

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Washington, D.C.: Craig -- I can appreciate how frustrating it must be to return from service in Iraq and try to put your normal life back together. How do you feel about your Guard service on the whole? Looking back, would you do it again? And do you have any advice for men and women considering joining the Guard? My son is weighing the option.

Craig Lewis: I am very proud of my service and wouldn't hesitate to do it again. Words cannot express the feelings of accomplish, I felt after returning home. I would strongly encourage any individual seeking to join the military to weigh the options of an education versus enlistment. In addition take time to review the possible career choices the military offers and pick one that transfers to the civilian work force.

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Alexandria VA: Thank you for writing this excellent article. I was reminded of the classic film "The Best Years of Our Lives" about the GIs returning immediately after WWII. The various characters face drinking problems, a divorce, disability caused by one hand having been shot off, and the inability to find appropriate jobs. One character takes a job in a drug store for a while. It is always a challenge for returning soldiers to reintegrate into civilian society. I hope your article is widely read by potential employers and leads them to actively seek out returning vets. Good for the soldier you profiled for turning down the teaching job, and finding something that pays better and is a good fit for his skills.

Craig Lewis: Returning home for many veterans can be a extremely difficult task. It took me 3-5 months to totally decompress from the deployment. We can only hope that all employeers have your views on returning veterans. Thank you for your comment.

Christian Davenport: This is a theme that affects veterans of every generation. There was, of course, the Lost generation of WWI, the Greatest Generation of World War II. And now we have tens of thousands of vets coming home from Iraq or Afghanistan, who are I would argue, something of an invisible generation. Less than one percent of the US population serevs in the Armed Forces, and we as a society have never been so divorced for our military--or the wars it was fighting.

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Alexandria, Va.: Christian -- How did you start writing this book? Is it all about Craig, or the rest of the unit as well? I've never had much interest in military issues, but I've seen a number of documentaries chronicling the human side of being in the military, and they've been surprisingly fascinating. Was there anything you discovered in writing the book or this article that surprised you?

Christian Davenport: Thanks for the note. I was surprised by the huge disconnect that exists between soldiers and the rest of us in civlian life. The line between those who serve and those who do not has become one of the great fault lines in American society, along with race, class, religion. It can be very difficuly to come back to a society who not only has no idea what Iraq was like, but no idea what it means to put on a uniform. I think Craig encountered this, and so did the other characters in the book.

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Silver Spring, Maryland: If we could control time, I would want to go back to 2007, upon your return from Iraq and your return to civilian life. Somebody is not doing their job in ESGR because your unit should have had a briefing on your rights and responsibilities under USERRA upon returning to civilian life. As an Ombudsman with over 1100 cases in 20 years - yours is a classic example of what can go wrong. Please find someone to inform your unit of their rights upon returning to civilian life. Please, Chris, get the word out to the ESGR Committee closest to his base to give them a briefing if they have not done so already. If you want to discuss this any further, please call me. God Bless! Fred Samuelson

Craig Lewis: Mr. Samuelson,

I was well aware of my rights as a returning veteran. After our deployment our unit was briefed numerous times on our rights returning to our employeer. I knew the school system would face a financial burden because of the unplanned hire. Additionally, I would not feel comfortable teaching in a position that I was unwanted in by the administration. To say the least I was very disappointed in the reaction by the administration upon my return and knew if forced into a hire would led to additional problems in the future.

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FYI: Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA)

http://www.esgr.org/userra.asp

Ombudsman Services

ph: 1-800-336-4590, opt 1

email: USERRA@osd.mil

snail mail: ATTN: Ombudsman Services, 1555 Wilson Blvd Arlington, VA 22209

Christian Davenport: Many thanks for this info. I'm pleased to get it out there. As I mentioned in the article, calls to ESGR, the Pentagon department that handles calls from reservists who have problems with their employment, has increased dramatically. In large part that's because many more soldiers are aware of the program, and of their rights. Over the weekend, I got many emails from veterans who said that they too had problems finding a job after coming home.

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Riverdale Park, Md.: Hello Christian and Craig,

Here are some prejudices that some employers might have about vets.

1. Vets are dumb. The best and the brightest don't join the military.

2. Vets have no initiative. Everything a soldier, sailor, marine or airman does is in response to an order.

3. Vets have no powers of persuasion. They either issue orders or threaten people.

4. Vets could go nuts. Reliving a traumatic combat experience could trigger a "graphic incident" at work.

I don't know if the prejudices are widespread of if they can account for Craig's lack of job-hunting success.

Craig Lewis: Prior to returning from Iraq, I was under the impression that only the best and brighest joined the military. Growing up in a rural area, a majority of the kids joined the military and most of the families had a long military history. I always viewed veterans with a certain amount of respect and thought the rest of the world did too...wrong. I'm not sure if the listed prejudices prevented myself from getting but I'm sure there are employeers out there that carry these prejudices.

Christian Davenport: My sense is that in so much of the country there's just a real misunderstanding of who serves and why. Certainly there are stereotypes about soldiers. But in my experience, they often don't ring true.

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Frederick, MD: I just wanted to say thank you for serving our country - us - to Craig and all the rest of his battalion. We can disagree with the war but should honor the troops who make such sacrifices.

Craig Lewis: Thank you for your comment. I joined the military to serve this country. That doesn't mean I will agree with every decision the Government makes but I will carry out every mission assigned to me whether I agree with it or not, to the best of my ability and expect others to do the same.

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Washington DC: You mention the huge disconnect between vets and civilians. That disconnect could be a disadvantage for vets. Many jobs involve interacting with people, most of whom aren't vets.

Christian Davenport: I think in some cases that's certainly true. In the military, young men and women are given huge responsibilties. Many are in charge, at a very young age, not only of millions of dollars worth of equipment but of other people's lives. But it can be difficult to explain that experience to civilians, which is why so much of the veteran job training is focused on translating military specialties into terms the general public can understand. But it can still be a tough bridge to cross.

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Wash, DC: Just FYI, your article says your book comes out June 1st but I was able to purchase it yesterday at the Barnes n Noble on Route 1 in VA.

Christian Davenport: Yes, it came out early! Welcome to the wild world of publishing. Thanks for picking it up.

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herndon, va: My best wishes to CPT Lewis and congratulations to Mr. Davenport for an excellent article. I was in a somewhat similar position in 1972 as a Viet Nam war vet (also a captain) leaving the Army. I did have the advantage of not having to worry about being called up again. The one error I made was turning down a couple of jobs because I thought I could do better - in retrospect, a mistake. Did anything along those lines occur for Captain Lewis?

Christian Davenport: Thanks for your note. Like I said, I had a lot of reaction from veterans across the country who found themselves in similar situations. And it looks like it was true not just for the currents wars, but for previous ones as well.

Craig Lewis: I didn't turn down any jobs; however, at first I do think I was reaching a little bit. I applied for jobs that usually require job related experience but I thought my training in the military and leadership experience would make-up for a lack of job training. I still believe I was more than qualified for a majority of the jobs.

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Washington, DC: Thank you so much for your service in Iraq. I can't even imagine uprooting my whole life on a moment's notice to head into a war zone only to return uncertain about what the future holds. That is real bravery.

Christian Davenport: We're getting a lot of these kinds of comments, so I'll post this one in the spirit of Memorial Day Weekend.

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Springfield, VA: I want to say thank you for your service. I served in the 29th, 116th, Co B Manassas Inf Light from 84 to 91. I'm proud to have served in the Guard and proud that people like you served. When I saw that 29th badge on your shoulder on the cover of the Washington Post magazine - it really made me feel good. Thank you. Whatever happens to you in the rest of your life they can't take that service from you. God speed.

Craig Lewis: Thank you for you comment. Many people out there don't know the proud history of the 29th; most notably the sacrifices made at Omaha Beach on D-Day. I am very proud to were that patch and serve with the men and women of the 29th.

Christian Davenport: And the 116th has quite a pedigree as well. People often see the Guard through the prisim of Vietnam, when it was by and large left on the sidelines for political reasons. But the Guard is one of our most venerable institutions, dating to 1636 (or, as some in Virginia claim, 1607). And it has served in virtually every American conflict from the Revolutionary War on. (Its symbol is the Minuteman.) One of the most overlooked museums in DC is the National Guard Museum, which is located near Union Station.

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Washington, DC: Craig -- Thank you for your service Chris -- Thank you for the coverage

Chris, have you covered the impact of service to the self employed? I understand there are several self employed members of the Guard who have been crushed by the current deployments.

Christian Davenport: Thanks for the question. I did a story several years ago about an Army Reservist who owned a landscaping business (if I remember correctly) and the impact his deployment had on his family. Yes, it can be tough on the self-employed, and small businesses and small town police departments who have had many of their officers called up at once. But if you're self-employed and thinking of joining the reserves today, you should know full well that chances are you're going to be called at some point.

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Washington, DC: Captain Lewis, thank you for your service. I think the article really shows how much sacrifice is involved but how willingly members of the Guard serve their country. It's very inspiring. You said it took time to adjust to life at home again. How are you doing now?

Craig Lewis: I'm doing extremely well. The biggest adjustment after returning home was the lack of "excitement" for lack of a better word. While deployed you are moving at 100 mph all the time. Each mission you have is important; each person over there is important. Then you return home only to find it just the way you left it. Nothing changed... and it's a struggle to find purpose in working when overseas so much was dependant on you.

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Christian Davenport: Thanks everyone for the thoughtful questions and for reading the piece. Sorry we couldn't get to more of them. I'm going to be doing a reading at the Politics and Prose book store in DC June 20 at 1 p.m. You can fire away then as well.

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