TOPICS > Economy

Job-Seeking Vets Confront Stigma of ‘Falling Behind’ While Deployed

November 11, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
More than 12 percent of the roughly 2 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were jobless last month, compared to 9 percent of the total population. As part of his reporting on Making Sen$e of financial news, Paul Solman looks at the problems many service members face in finding a job back home.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And we return to the subject of veterans on this day honoring them – now, the problems many face in finding a job back home.

NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman updates a story he filed earlier this year. It’s part of his regular 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 in 2010.

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. Over 12 percent were jobless last month, compared to 9 percent for the total population. For vets aged 18-34, the rate was 16.6 percent.

The problem took center stage in Washington this week. On Monday, President Obama outlined a plan that offers veterans personalized career counseling and new Web resources to assist them in their job hunt.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Unemployment among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan continue to rise. That’s not right. It doesn’t make sense, not for our veterans, not for our families, not for America. And were determined to change that.

PAUL SOLMAN: Yesterday, in a rare show of unity, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a jobs package which includes employer tax incentives to hire unemployed vets, part of the $447 billion jobs bill the president announced in September.

Under the plan, firms that hire jobless vets would get a maximum $5,600 credit per veteran, and a maximum of $9,600 for each disabled veteran hired.

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: Rieckhoff has been urging Congress to do something all year. We spoke with him in March, as he and other vets stormed the Hill to ask members to help thin the jobless ranks.

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 else 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 have been trying to ease the transition by teaching vets current computing skills, for example, how 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: 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 to 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 last 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, less than 1 percent of the population has served in Iraq or Afghanistan, 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 I 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.

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.

(LAUGHTER)

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 completed the program this spring. Bain is now in culinary school. Vadalma worked at the Bureau of Economic Analysis until last month. He’s now looking for another job. Sheffield is, too. He decided against a commission-based insurance gig and is temping to get by.

MAN: Thank you for your service.

PAUL SOLMAN: Hundreds of thousands of other Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are jobless, too, and thousands more are slated to return in the months ahead.

JIM LEHRER: There’s more about the economic and emotional problems facing returning veterans on tonight’s edition of the PBS program “Need To Know.”