Unemployed veterans: Home, but feeling forgotten

It was in early September 2010, and I was serving in Afghanistan, helping to plan our mission to support that country's parliamentary elections. Offhandedly, a colleague asked whether I was going to return to my civilian job when I returned home. I replied, "I don't think so." Surprised, he asked what I planned to do instead. Confidently, I shrugged him off, "I don't know. I'm sure something will shake loose." We returned to the Unites States in December 2010 and were assured that we were not going to be forgotten. I flew home from demobilization, excited about the prospect of seeing friends and family and confident that I would quickly find work. Eight months later, I find myself still applying, still waiting for a job offer. Tragically, I'm not alone in the unemployment lines, and like hundreds of thousands of others, I wait for something to shake loose while feeling forgotten.

The national unemployment rate sits just above 9 percent, but according to Bureau of Labor Statistics, veteran' 'unemployment was 13.3 percent as of June 2011. Further statistics about veteran unemployment are even more troubling. In a Congressional Joint Economic Committee report, the authors note that about 27 percent of all veterans aged 18-24 were unemployed. As many as 200,000 veterans are without work. Let me put this in perspective. The number of unemployed veterans is about equal to the size of the cities of Spokane, Wash., or Akron,Ohio.

My experiences are probably not unique. Countless applications, job fairs, even interviews, and I'm still in the same place I was when I transitioned from active duty into the civilian world. I naively believed that my leadership training and experiences leading soldiers during wartime would translate into a civilian job.

One experience stands out. I applied to the State Department as a foreign service officer thinking that my experiences working in a cross-cultural environment would be a great fit. Our mission in Afghanistan called us to interact with Afghans in a diplomatic manner while representing American interests. After all, the State Department's "Diplomacy in Action" motto was something that we engaged in daily. Unfortunately, the response I received indicated that while I was eligible for the position, I was not referred.

This is the case for most Federal jobs. Veterans preference accounts for five points in the federal government's hiring program. More points are awarded for disabled veterans, but in the grand scheme of things, they seem to be statistically unimportant in the hiring process. The corporate world provides a separate set of challenges.

The benefits of hiring veterans are hard to overstate. Soldiers, even at the lowest levels, think critically and independently in life or death situations, which put the stress of a corporate environment to shame. Most of these soldiers have a wide depth of experience in leadership, time management, teamwork and logistics that would benefit any potential employer.

Most job applications are automated and present a set of challenges to any potential soldier seeking post-military employment. Instead of Internet technology which focuses on identifying potential employees through keywords, companies need to rely on personal interaction to identify strong job candidates.

Additionally, advising for veterans is key. I had the pleasure of interacting with a representative at the Maryland Department of Veteran Affairs who worked with me to translate my military experience into a marketable civilian skillset. Veteran employment counselors are a necessary and vital resource for any transitioning member of the military seeking civilian employment. Urge your state and federal lawmakers to sponsor legislation that would hire more of these individuals.

Job training is crucial. Too many soldiers go on terminal leave and are thrust into society without the requisite job training vital to their success in the civilian world. Job training programs focusing on potential career paths is essential to better the odds of veterans receiving good civilian jobs.

At a recent job fair, Cherlene Emfinger, a fellow veteran, expressed the frustration that many of us face when she said, "At first I was optimistic. I have almost nine years of work history, a bachelor's degree, management skills and discipline. But now I'm just really frustrated. It doesn't make any sense." It's a frustration that we all face. Americans, by vast majorities, say that they support the troops, and while we appreciate the flags and the yellow ribbon bumper stickers, we echo Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis when she said, "If you own a business, the best way to thank a veteran is to hire one." Here's hoping. As for me, I'll keep applying for employment and hoping that something, anything, will shake loose.

Jeff Hartline is an officer in the Maryland Army National Guard. His opinions do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the United States Army or Maryland National Guard. His email is jeff.f.hartline@gmail.com.

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