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Iraq, Afghanistan veterans struggle to find jobs


WASHINGTON – After almost two years in New York looking for work in law enforcement, Iraq veteran Christopher Kurz just moved back in with his parents in Arizona. His military police work in Iraq and aboard a nuclear aircraft carrier didn’t seem to translate into a job.

“The employers out there, they are military-friendly and veteran-friendly, and they love us and thank us and everything, but when you go apply for a job, it’s almost like they are scared to take a risk for you. I don’t get it. It doesn’t make sense,” said Kurz, a 28-year-old Navy reservist.

The Labor Department was expected to release new unemployment numbers last week for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans ages 18-24. More than one-fifth, 21.1 percent, were reported unemployed in 2009, and veterans’ advocates say the number is expected to be just as high for 2010.

Concerns that Guard and Reserve troops will be gone for long stretches and that veterans might have mental health issues or lack civilian work skills appear to be factors keeping many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans out of work.

The problem has persisted despite government and private initiatives designed to help them. Advocates say more of a concentrated effort to have licensing and skills obtained in the military translate into the civilian workplace and more public awareness about what veterans offer employers are needed to tackle the problem.

Sen. Patty Murray, chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said veterans have told her they take their military experience off their resumes because they fear a potential employer will decide they’re at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder and not hire them.

“They take four or eight years of experience and throw it out the door and pretend it doesn’t even exist,” said Murray, a Washington Democrat. “That to me is a huge consequence to them, professionally.”

One of the largest government efforts is the Post-9/11 GI Bill administered by the Veterans Affairs Department, which by the end of last year had paid out nearly $7.2 billion in tuition, housing and stipends for more than 425,000 veterans or their eligible family members.

Kurz said that without the new GI Bill he probably would have been homeless or moving back in with his parents in Mesa, Ariz., much sooner. He recently transferred from the City College of New York to Ottawa University in Arizona so he can finish his bachelor’s degree.

As he’s looked for a job with police departments and federal agencies such as Homeland Security, he said his years as a military police officer haven’t seemed to count when pitted against someone with a degree in criminal justice – even if the college grad didn’t have previous law enforcement experience.

“I don’t understand why they don’t want to hire a veteran who’s got on-the-job experience, because a college student who has got a criminal justice degree – that might be great, don’t get me wrong – he’s smart, but he’s not street smart,” Kurz said. “You can’t teach people the stuff you learn in the street in school.”

Staff Sgt. Meghan Meade, 27, of East Moriches, N.Y., said her lack of a bachelor’s degree also seems to have kept her from getting a full-time job, even doing administrative work. A member of the New York Air National Guard, she said she’s spent five years on active duty and did a tour in Iraq. When she brings up her military experience, she said she gets a lot of questions about when she will deploy again. She has an associate’s degree, but she’s reluctant to go back to school because she’s not sure exactly what to study. She’s waiting tables and doing temporary clerical work.

Meade said she hears questions at job interviews like, “ ‘Do you have to deploy again? Well, how often do you deploy? And well, how much notice would you have?’ It just starts a long stream of questions. I don’t think they hold it against you that you have deployed, in the past, but they definitely inquire more about your future with the company, and I think they are more hesitant to hire you.”

Tim Embree, a legislative associate with the nonprofit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said some certifications in the military such as for pilots and nurses easily translate into a job down the road. Other jobs – ranging from military barbers to mechanics – vary by how years of experience are counted. Each state also has its own licensing requirements.

As a start, he said his organization is pushing for a robust study looking at every job in the military and how it translates into the civilian and academic world, as well as each state’s licensing requirements pertaining to military experience. He said he’s hopeful a private organization will step forward to do such a report.

“We’re dealing with a situation right now where you have veterans, service members taking off their uniform that have amazing skill sets, and you also have a lot of employers out there that want to hire folks like this, but something is being lost in the translation.”

Murray said transferring military experiences into the private sector is one issue her committee will look at as it addresses veterans’ unemployment. She said she’d also like to see the military make mandatory for everyone leaving the military its Transition Assistance Program, which provides resume help and other job-related guidance to those leaving the military.

Associated Press