For veterans, the job hunt comes with extra challenges

Jacquelyn Fisher talks with other veterans at Piedmont Virginia Community College. A veterans advisor, she helps walk former military servicemen and women through the process of applying for college credit and receiving the benefits owed them. Photo by Elli Williams.

Kerry Rock had been in Charlottesville a week when the then-22-year-old Iraq War veteran found himself in the grocery store, a packet of chicken in one hand and his phone in the other.

“I’d done Chinese food and pizza,” he said. “I finally realized I needed to learn how to cook. So I called my mom from the grocery story and I was like, ‘All right, I picked up a piece of chicken. What do I do with it?’”

He laughs about it now, but that moment underscored what’s true for a lot of young veterans. Many, like Rock, enlist as teenagers. In their first years as working adults, a lot of life’s daily hassles—from cooking to paying rent—are taken care of, so when they return to civilian life looking for work, they’re also learning the basics. Even older veterans with years of workforce experience find themselves facing more financial struggles than their non-military peers. Injuries, the need to retrain and rethink careers, the strain on family life—all are hurdles on the path to stability. Many deal with it the way they learned to get past other difficulties: They put their heads down and soldier through.

Rock said coming home has meant learning to be a different kind of employee. He was fortunate to come out of his service with an easily transferable skill—he was in military intelligence—and had a high security clearance, both of which helped him land a job as an analyst at Northrop Grumman. He’s back in school now, working on a business and administration degree at PVCC. But going from soldier to company man was hard.

“For four years, you’re trained to shoot down range and take out the bad guy,” he said. “It was one team, one fight. Then you get into the corporate world, and you have two fights. You have to do your job, and you also have to protect your job.”

For some, it’s even harder, he said. An infantryman—“who will put his life on the line for his country, every day of the week when he’s in uniform”—often has the toughest time finding work, Rock said, because those skills don’t transfer to a wide range of jobs.

Scott Martin, 50, is one of those trying to retrain. The Massachusetts native enlisted straight out of high school, spent two years overseas, and joined the National Guard when he got home. He was working as an Augusta County firefighter when he decided to re-enlist in 2004, and ended up going to Iraq with a Military Police unit. His 12-
month tour left him battered, inside and out.

“It was a good thing I was doing, but it turned out badly for me,” he said. He suffered a back injury and is still struggling with PTSD. “My wife says she’s still waiting for her husband to come home from Iraq.”

Returning is hard for everybody, he said, but for older vets like him who are coming back to a mortgage, the sudden loss of a military income is an even more painful financial jolt. He couldn’t work as a firefighter any more, so he went back to school to study psychology with the help of the GI Bill, which covers tuition, books, and some housing costs. But his wife’s hours were cut back, and Martin said if it weren’t for his disability check, they’d have lost their house long ago. He’s pinning his hopes on being able to wrap up his bachelor’s degree before the money runs out.

“We’re never comfortable,” he said.

It’s not uncommon for financial struggles to be compounded by family problems, said Jacquelyn Fisher. Her Naval air traffic controller job kept her near her kids, but her husband, also in the Navy, was overseas as often as he was home. The marriage ended in divorce, and while she and her ex are on good terms now, they both struggled to make ends meet after the separation.

“A lot of vets don’t want to ask for help, and neither did I,” Fisher said. “It took me three months of not being sure where my groceries were going to come from before I swallowed my pride and went to social services and said I want help.”

After retraining and working for years in early childhood education, Fisher, now 42 and a mother of four, went back to school again in 2009 at PVCC to get a degree in human services, and landed a job as a veterans advisor at the college. She gets what PVCC’s 150 other veteran students are going through, because she’s lived it, from losing the safety net to struggling to find a new direction. Like them, she’s matter-of-fact about the hardships and successes alike.

“Life happened to me,” she said. “We were able to get through it.”