TOPICS > Economy

Returning Vets Face a New Battle: The Job Market

April 1, 2011 at 6:41 PM EDT
As part of his series on Making Sen$e of financial news, economics correspondent Paul Solman reports on the challenges veterans face returning home and searching for work in a troubled job market.

RAY SUAREZ: And we come back to unemployment and the challenges facing military men and women when they come back home and look for work in the civilian world.

NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman has our story. It’s part of his reporting on Making Sense of financial news.

EDMOND SHEFFIELD, U.S. military veteran: If I owned a business and somebody took a bullet for me, I could at least give that person a job at my corporation.

PAUL SOLMAN: Edmond Sheffield worked as a military policeman while in the service. He got out last march.

ERIK VADALMA, U.S. military veteran: I applied to maybe 100 jobs.

PAUL SOLMAN: Erik Vadalma served in Baghdad, left the Air Force in 2008. All he could find, a part-time gig at Ikea.

ERIK VADALMA: I didn’t have enough money to make ends meet.

PAUL SOLMAN: Debra Bain did a six-year hitch.

DEBRA BAIN, U.S. military veteran: You feel like you have lost who you are as a person, your value.

PAUL SOLMAN: Just three of more than two million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Despite incentives to hire them, 11 percent were jobless last month; for those aged 18 to 34, 14 percent.

Paul Rieckhoff founded and runs IAVA, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

PAUL RIECKHOFF, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America: They’re coming home from serving our country, sometimes multiple tours, and their welcome home is an unemployment check.

PAUL SOLMAN: This week, Rieckhoff led the now-annual charge on Washington dubbed Storm the Hill. This year, vets urged Congress to help thin the jobless ranks with hiring inducements like employer tax breaks.

PAUL RIECKHOFF: So, if folks want to support the troops and they want to support veterans, hire them.

PAUL SOLMAN: Himself an Iraq vet, Rieckhoff says it’s an outrage: You learn the key job skills while serving your country: selflessness, loyalty, teamwork, leadership. But to employers, you’ve fallen behind.

PAUL RIECKHOFF: And it’s not like folks are waiting back home to say, hey, buddy, let me explain to you all that you missed while you were gone. You feel like Rip Van Winkle, like you woke up and that everybody has been moving on with life, and you have been sleeping for a year-and-a-half.

PAUL SOLMAN: Programs like the Veterans Curation Project ease the transition by teaching vets current computing skills, for example, to archive artifacts found during Army Corps of Engineers’ projects.

Corps archaeologist Sonny Trimble had the idea after a tour in Iraq digging up mass graves.

MICHAEL “SONNY” TRIMBLE, Army Corps of Engineers: The people that kept us alive and guarded us all the time, day in and day out, were soldiers and Marines, 24 hours a day, around us while we’re working, guarding us while we slept at night. I wanted pay these individuals back.

PAUL SOLMAN: A job that pays up to $14.50 an hour, funded by the Army Corps of Engineers, a quiet alternative to the sudden jolt of the job market.

EDMOND SHEFFIELD: It’s a complete 180 turnaround.

PAUL SOLMAN: Edmond Sheffield joined the archaeology program in November, after beating the pavement for months.

EDMOND SHEFFIELD: Just going throughout your whole military career, it’s structure, structure, structure, instructions, instructions, instructions. I mean, some people just can’t just snap your fingers and be like, hey, I’m a civilian. I’m no longer in the military.

ERIK VADALMA: In the military, there’s a sense of security with — you know, financial security, and there’s also a sense of community. When I separated, I lost all that. I was isolated out here in Maryland. And so that made going to school incredibly difficult.

PAUL SOLMAN: Erik Vadalma was one of the half-a-million vets who have used the expanded G.I. Bill, which pays for public college tuition, housing and books.

But the time and place were out of joint.

ERIK VADALMA: I remember walking out into a — into the courtyard, and I smelled marijuana. You know, that sort of thing, for me coming out of the military, that’s absolutely unacceptable. And that also creates kind of — you know, it makes me also feel a little more isolated, because I don’t fit into that group.

PAUL SOLMAN: Vadalma dropped out.

Though so many of her peers do not, Debra Bain has a B.A. She began her master’s at community college, but had to continue her studies online.

DEBRA BAIN: There were individuals that were forming their own little class when the teacher was conducting the class, and I felt that was disrespectful. It was disruptive behavior that I just couldn’t tolerate.

PAUL SOLMAN: This program helps vets ease back into civilian life, instead of hero one day, nobody the next.

EDMOND SHEFFIELD: You know, just being in uniform, you stop somewhere: Hey. Hey. Would you like a sandwich? Thanks for serving our country — a handshake. You know, but you walk around with your little veteran I.D., it’s like, oh, you served the country. That will be $5.50.

PAUL SOLMAN: Another issue: Today, fewer than 1 percent of the population has ever served, so most civilian employers may not understand military experience.

ERIK VADALMA: When an applicant applies and has a bachelor’s degree, the employer knows what the employee knows. In the military, they probably don’t know what we’ve done and don’t have a good idea of our skills.

PAUL SOLMAN: Employers admit to other fears. In a survey last year, 46 percent of human-resource managers agreed that PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other mental health issues posed a challenge.

Emmanuel Riley left the Army after returning from Afghanistan in 2005. He lives in a housing unit provided by a nonprofit.

EMMANUEL RILEY, U.S. military veteran: I was a combat engineer. Along with that is we can detach land mines, IEDs.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, your job involves disarming explosives.

EMMANUEL RILEY: Yes, and lost some friends that were a part of my unit due to my particular job in the military. Well, sometimes, it can define your life after service.

PAUL SOLMAN: Like what?

EMMANUEL RILEY: Alcohol abuse, drinking a lot, sometimes nightmares, a lot of those, a lot of nightmares.

PAUL SOLMAN: Riley didn’t know he had PTSD. He wound up homeless, living in a storage unit.

EMMANUEL RILEY: Divorced, lost my family, lost quite a bit.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now sober and in treatment for his PTSD, Riley’s looking hard for a job.

According to a 2008 RAND study, nearly one-third of Iraq and Afghanistan vets had symptoms of PTSD, major depression, or had experienced a traumatic brain injury.

Debra Bain is still haunted by the Iraq morgue in which she volunteered.

DEBRA BAIN: When you see certain things in life that makes no sense, you pretty much lose a sense of self. It tears you apart.

PAUL SOLMAN: Even Corps archaeologist Sonny Trimble struggled with PTSD.

MICHAEL “SONNY TRIMBLE: You don’t realize that what the war has done is kind of whittled you away. It’s kind of sanded you away, like with fine sandpaper. And you can’t do a lot of the things you could do in the past. I wouldn’t — I wouldn’t come out of my house on the weekend for over a year. And that’s probably the first time I have said that to anybody besides my family.

PAUL SOLMAN: Is it illegitimate, then, for employers to harbor some fear of worst-case scenarios, like flashbacks, or becoming violent, going postal?

EDMOND SHEFFIELD: The military doesn’t have a problem with us being postal. I mean, we carry guns.


EDMOND SHEFFIELD: You see what I’m saying?

ERIK VADALMA: As far as the PTSD goes, are employers asking the same questions if someone is blind? You know, PTSD is — it’s an illness, or it’s — you know, it’s — but it’s manageable.

PAUL SOLMAN: The vets told us they’re grateful for the program.

DEBRA BAIN: I was pretty much feeling like I was going to hit rock bottom, and then this came along.

EDMOND SHEFFIELD: I was on the verge of being homeless. Me, my family were all about to be out on the streets. And once they hired me, I was able to, you know, work, support my family, being able to — I found a new place. We’re no longer on the verge of being homeless. We have, you know, a place to stay. I have income to, you know, pay the bills and put food on the table.

ERIK VADALMA: It offered that sense of structure, that stability. It allowed me to pay my bills.

PAUL SOLMAN: Happily, more than half of this project’s 77 participants have found work or gone to college. Vadalma starts a job as budget analyst at the Bureau of Economic Analysis this month; Sheffield as an insurance agent at Aflac.

MAN: Thank you for your service.

PAUL SOLMAN: But hundreds of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are still jobless, and thousands more are slated to return home in the months ahead.