For veterans, the job hunt comes with extra challenges

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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.”

  • http://twitter.com/ilexlew Lewis N.

    I wanted to personally thank you, as a veteran, for publishing the story on the challenges ]veterans face finding employment. I’m a loyal reader for the past four years, even during my recent six month deployment to Afghanistan (as a civilian this time), and always keep up with you on Twitter.

    I wanted to add some feedback though on some facts I wish you would have included. Unemployment rates for veterans aged 18 to 24 averaged 29 percent in 2011… more than 10 percent higher than the rest of the population in America. According to the September jobs report, post 9/11 veteran unemployment was at 9.7 percent with female veteran unemployment at a staggering 19.9 percent. This topic was even addressed recently on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which highlighted additional challenges veterans face such as poor translation of work experience to civilian credentials. (http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-october-24-2012/exclusive—economic-reintegration-for-veterans)

    I wish you would have mentioned ways that struggling veterans can get help. I’m a member of multiple veterans organizations: the American Legion (Post 128 in Stanardsville – http://www.legion128.org) [Albemarle County also has American Legion Post 74 near Keswick whose website is http://alp74.avenue.org, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) [I'm a Virginia at-large member but Post 1827 is near Pantops], and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (http://www.iava.org). All three of these great organizations are making both legislative and direct progress in mentoring and trying to help veterans find work. This is in addition to the amazing work being done to help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) counseling and GI Bill benefits. I’m very happy you addressed PTSD, but I wish you would have helped lead the many struggling veterans in the area to the where they can find help.. either through the organizations listed above or directly through the Department of Veterans Affairs. The main regional VA hospital is in Richmond and they have an Iraq and Afghanistan transition office (Lynn P. Anderson, OEF/OIF Program Manager, 804-675-6494 or Jose Illa, 804-675-6266 or Kimberly Hinson, cell phone, 804-387-4108), but there is also a VA outpatient clinic right here in Charlottesville that can be reached at 434-293-3890 — they can facilitate the registration process for area vets.

    You mentioned Piedmont Virginia Community College’s role in educating young vets, but are you aware of the difficulties we face in getting the GI Bill benefits we have earned? I’d love to know how PVCC and/or the University of Virginia is facilitating the use of the GI Bill for veterans and who/where veterans can go for GI Bill assistance locally. Both the VA (at http://gibill.va.gov) and IAVA (at http://newgibill.org) have great information for veterans hoping to use either the Montgomery or the Post 9/11 GI Bill. But according to the Stars and Stripes, the VA backlog on paying Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits are worse than ever with pending claims over 300,000 last September.

    I love that you addressed this concern, I just wish you would have helped to lead veterans to help and hoped you might have encouraged local business to hire veterans based on our unique job experiences, ability to take on huge responsibilities at a young age, and experience with accepting orders, working hard, and performing duties with integrity!

    I’ve found it pretty hard to get the many young, area veterans involved in any of the organizations — I think there is a stigma with the Legion and VFW that it is only for older vets. But I think many Iraq and Afghanistan vets would be more fond of IAVA because they focus directly on us and our issues, but I encourage vets to reach out to any of these organizations with their questions or to ask for help with education, health benefits, or help finding work. The VA also has vocational programs in place for vets as well, but I’m not as knowledgeable about them. Some may only be applicable to disabled veterans, but it’s always worth a shot!

    Lewis N.
    US Army (2001 – 2008), medically retired, two-time Iraq vet
    Earlysville, VA

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