Veterans Day: There's a new enemy on the homefront

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When members of the Indiana National Guard 219th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade returned home from Iraq early Thursday, they were met with hugs, cheers, tears -- and, for many of them, one more thing: unemployment.

About a quarter of the 425 people deployed in that unit -- about 100 returned Thursday, with more returning in the next couple of weeks -- are coming back with no job waiting for them, said Col. Ross Waltemath, director of civil military affairs for the Indiana National Guard.

That's no aberration.

In fact, Indiana has one of the highest rates of unemployment for young veterans in the nation.

A report this summer by the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee showed that while the overall unemployment rate for Indiana veterans of all ages was 9 percent, about the same as for the population as a whole, post 9/11 veterans -- those young men and women who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan -- had an unemployment rate of 23.6 percent in 2010. That was second only to Michigan, where the jobless rate for young veterans was 29.4 percent. Nationally, the number is 11.5 percent.

It's gotten the attention of President Barack Obama, Congress, state governments, the American Legion, the Chamber of Commerce and more. It's why, on the eve of today's Veterans Day celebrations, the usually partisan-deadlocked Senate voted 95-0 for the portion of the president's jobs package that provides tax credits to encourage employers to hire veterans.

Great, said 31-year-old Marine Corps veteran Trey Obert.

"Now if they'd only start doing it," Obert said. "Everybody says they'd love to hire veterans, but obviously it isn't happening."

He's been looking for a job for months.

"The (Veterans Administration) put me through an office solutions course to teach me office administration. I completed that the first part of March with the highest score that they'd ever seen, and I'm still unemployed," Obert said.

He's sent out more resumes than he can remember. But interviews?

He's had one.

In October, the city of Indianapolis interviewed him for a position with the Mayor's Action Center. After that, Obert said, he "kind of sat by the phone" hoping it would ring with news that he had gotten the job.

He's still waiting.

Obert said he'll celebrate Veterans Day today by remembering the heroes throughout the nation's history. Heroes such as his father, a Navy SEAL who fought in Vietnam, winning a Bronze Star, a Silver Star and four Purple Hearts -- and losing a leg.

Obert, like most soldiers, doesn't think of himself as a hero.

"No, ma'am," he said. "Nowhere near it."

Others might. Obert enlisted in the Marines in 1998 and thought that would be a career. Until, that is, a bullet hit him midchest in the first battle of Fallujah in Iraq, on Jan. 29, 2003. It's still lodged in his right shoulder blade.

He was loaded by medics onto a Humvee. He remembers the IV being started, a tampon shoved in the wound to stop the bleeding and someone asking him his name.

"That's the last thing I remember. I woke up two days later in the hospital in Baghdad," Obert said.

The Humvee had hit an IED -- an improvised explosive device -- killing two service members, robbing another of his left arm and leaving Obert sprayed with shrapnel, still embedded in him.

Those are the physical scars. Then there are the nightmares, the headaches, the panic attacks, the insomnia -- the post-traumatic stress disorder that has affected so many veterans.

Obert, who left the Marines in 2007, speaks of those problems matter-of-factly -- though he doesn't like speaking of them at all. The GI Bill paid for his education and a stipend when he returned to school for classes in criminal justice while working a part-time security job, but he stopped going.

"I tried staying in school, but mentally I just couldn't," Obert said. "Everybody wanted to talk about it at school. . . . Everybody wants to talk about the war, and I can't do it."

Besides, he said, he'd learned he would be a father -- he now has a 5-year-old son, Caleb -- "my pride and joy, my buddy" -- and wanted something better than a security job.

Now he's trying to find it.

Perhaps, Obert said, the problems adjusting to civilian life that so many veterans face makes employers reluctant to hire them. And perhaps it's just a bad economy.

"The only skills I really have are what the Marine Corps taught me, and no one is really hiring for that," he said.

Those words are typical, according to many trying to fix the problem of jobless veterans.

Russell Silver is a 31-year-old veteran of the Army and the Indiana National Guard. He is in the Army Reserve.

Silver served in Iraq and Kosovo, and he knows what it's like to come home to no job.

Though he'd been trained in communications technology in the Army, he couldn't find a job when he left the service in 2003. He spent six months on unemployment, he said.

Today, he works for the Department of Defense in the Office of Wounded Warrior Care and Transition Policy. Silver said the problems he faced are typical of the soldiers with whom he meets.

Though he had extensive training and experience, he didn't know how to translate that in an interview or a resume in a way that would show employers that his military skills matched their job needs. And, he said, he had no certificate or documentation from the Army to show to an employer.

"I went through six months of training, spent just over four years responsible for tens of thousands of dollars of equipment, yet when I got out, I didn't have a single piece of paper I could take to an employer," Silver said. "When I went up to an employer, it was as if I had just graduated from high school and had no specialized training whatsoever."

Now, he said, he and other agencies -- government, military and nonprofits -- are working to help veterans put their military experience in terms that a civilian employer can understand.

Fang Wong, the new commander of the Indianapolis-based American Legion and a 20-year veteran of the Army, said employers may not realize that the young person asking for a job has experience beyond his or her years.

"One of the big problems is they don't have a clear understanding of the caliber (of soldier) that we're getting. Sometimes (employers) will get stuck into looking for some key background or some key certification. That will obviously discourage the young veterans from seeking work," Wong said. "They may not get the chance for a first interview because they lack the background, or the employer lacks the understanding of what the military training and skill is equivalent to."

It isn't just young veterans who are struggling.

Steve "Airborne" Ward, an Army veteran of 22 years, works for Indiana's Department of Workforce Development in an Indianapolis WorkOne center, in the Disabled Veterans' Outreach Program.

Wednesday, he and partner Gary Benge, an Air Force veteran, were at the HVAF of Indiana center in Downtown Indianapolis. The United Way-funded Hoosier Veterans Assistance Foundation houses about 200 homeless veterans, helping them restart their lives. There, they met with Duane Sims, 51, who has struggled with drug abuse since leaving the Marines in 1980, and Jonathan Smith, a 35-year-old Army veteran of Bosnia and Afghanistan who tried to solve his PTSD problems with alcohol. Both are unemployed, with Sims hoping to go to school to be a social worker and Smith waiting to hear back from his first job interview.

Ward agreed with Silver that veterans can sell themselves short.

Where the soldiers just see combat, Ward sees men who know how to supervise and think on their feet -- skills employers want.

And, Ward and others said, veterans can be reluctant to ask for help.

Smith knows what that is like. Though he'd been out of the Army since 2006, he'd never used any of his GI benefits to get the help and education he needed. And, Smith said, he walked around the block three times before finally going in to the HVAF center and asking for help.

U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman, an Indiana Republican who serves on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, is chairman of the subcommittee on economic opportunity and held hearings on the problem of veteran unemployment in Indiana and Iowa.

"We're seeing a frustration among veterans. When they don't find work, they just re-enlist. Once the wars do end, and re-enlistment is not needed as much, we're going to have a big challenge for them to find work," he said.

U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly, an Indiana Democrat who also serves on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, said jobs are on soldiers' minds long before they come home.

In 2009, he said, he visited a remote outpost of the Indiana National Guard in Afghanistan.

"I said, 'Look, if there's one thing I can do for you when I get home, what is it?' "

He expected them to ask for better equipment, clothing, food.

"The one thing they talked about? 'Joe, we need a job when we get home.' It's what everybody brought up," Donnelly said.

Waltemath, the Indiana National Guard colonel, said the Guard knows soldiers' concerns, especially at a time when the Guard has about a 20 percent unemployment rate in Indiana.

That unit that returned home Thursday? Its members will meet with an employment coordinator Monday morning.

Originally in the Indianapolis Star

By:  Mary Beth Schneider, Reporter


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