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Fighting for Work Job-Seeking War Veterans Face Tough Transition

November 7, 2007
Related Topics: Discrimination and EEOC Compliance, Candidate Sourcing, Featured Article, HR & Business Administration
The battle is far from over for Army veteran Steve Kraft.

    An ex-paratrooper, Kraft was in a constant state of vigilance when he faced regular gunfire in enemy raids in Iraq during 2003 and 2004. Friends were killed, and the fear of getting shot or blown up was unrelenting. But when he returned in 2005 to his former employer, MTV Networks, new conflicts arose.

    Unable to hold open his job as benefits administrator in human resources, the network created a new position especially for the 34-year-old New Yorker: booking conference rooms and tracking people who signed up for in-house training. It wasn’t much of a challenge for the former soldier, and a culture clash arose with his immediate supervisor, who dismissed his military experience as irrelevant to the job and told him she didn’t want to hear about Iraq.

    "It didn’t exactly make me feel valued as an employee," Kraft says.

    About seven months later, he was fired in a round of corporate restructuring. He’s still searching for full-time employment. MTV Networks says its policy is to hire and support veterans.

    At least 21,500 troops will return from Iraq by July 2008, according to a speech given by President Bush in September. Thousands more have already cycled through their tours of duty and are looking for civilian jobs.

    The transition can be tougher than boot camp training. GIs, reservists and National Guard members getting back to the daily grind bump up against common misperceptions from employers, who either discount these workers’ battlefield experience or expect them to ramp up as if they never left. At best, many say the return to the workplace feels like landing on the moon as symptoms of post-traumatic stress can leave them feeling jumpy and unfocused for months. Physical injuries create even more challenges.

    "Some employers just don’t get it," says Al Giordano, deputy executive director of nonprofit the Wounded Warrior Project. "They try to do the right thing, but they discount some of the severe trauma a soldier has been through, whether it’s physical or emotional."

Long haul
   But that’s for those vets fortunate enough to find the employment they need to make them feel whole again. Plenty of former soldiers struggle to find work well over a year after their return. The youngest GIs, with the least work experience, find it most difficult to fit into the workplace. The jobless rate among vets ages 20 to 24 was more than 10 percent in 2006, at least twice the national average for all adults, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Nonprofit organizations that work with veterans say the jobless rate is much higher.

    "Veteran underemployment is very deep and unmeasured," says Wes Poriotis, founder of the Center for Military and Private Sector Initiatives, which promotes the hiring of veterans.


Number of newly discharged veterans claiming unemployment insurance as of September: 22,073
Source:U.S. Department of Labor 
Percentage of disabled Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who are unemployed:About 35 percent
Source:Veterans Across America  

    Even older vets with plenty of translatable job skills get overlooked. They find themselves fighting unflattering preconceptions about the military and the kind of training they receive.

    "The civilian world just wants to put you in a box," says Ray Lopes, a former Marine Corps helicopter pilot who found this out firsthand.

    With 13 years’ experience in the military, the 45-year-old ex-officer left the service in 1998 to start his own construction company, but was called up as a reserve for two tours of active duty in 2003 and 2005. On his second tour with the 3rd Battalion, which has had a famously high casualty rate in this conflict, Lopes was shot by a sniper in his right hip and permanently disabled. After a year of recovery from a hip replacement and multiple complications, he found he was physically incapable of construction work and began applying to MBA programs.

Disappointing offer
   For several months now, Lopes has also been looking for work in a more corporate setting. Thinking his leadership training would open doors for a management position, the college graduate with a degree in marketing used a contact in the Marines to set up a meeting with HBO. But Lopes, who oversaw the reconstruction of Nasiriyah, Iraq, and managed hundreds of men, was told the only position for him at the network was security guard.

    "I was floored," he says. "I guess some employers have no idea what the military can offer."

    HBO expressed shock at Lopes’ experience.

    "If somebody, in fact, said this, they certainly weren’t speaking on behalf of the company," a spokeswoman said. In fact, the network says it has several veterans in management positions, including the CEO.

    Indeed, many employers make outsized efforts to retain positions for their workers who go to war. Orthopedic surgeon Jose Rodriguez, 40, was one of the lucky ones who had a job to come home to. He has no complaints about colleagues at Lenox Hill Hospital, who welcomed him back with open arms after two stints as an Army Reserve medical officer in Iraq.

    But even the smoothest transition back to civilian roles can hit rough patches. Performing triage and amputations for horribly wounded soldiers, often while under fire, left Rodriguez feeling fraught. He was jumpy and quick to raise his voice. He became rankled when well-meaning colleagues told him they understood what he went through, and felt as if he was in a fog for about six months after his first tour.

    "I remember walking around the hospital thinking, `What is this place?’ " Rodriguez says. "I felt like an alien."

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