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A Less Than Perfect Homecoming

October 08, 2015
Think about World War II. One of the first images that come to mind is the sailor kissing the random girl on the street of New York to celebrate the end of the war. Fast forward to Vietnam. The image is replaced by one of unrest, of protests and violence directed at the government, at leaders, even soldiers as they return home. Today, the picture is different yet again. Reflection brings to bear thoughts of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the psychological tolls war takes on soldiers even after they return home.

By Nick Buchta, C’17

This representation, however, only tells part of the story. Both those affected by PTSD and those not, face different realities at home than they left behind before being deployed. In particular, many are confronted with the need to re-enter the workforce. While a number of programs run by both private and public entities are working to address these needs, they fall short in providing enough funding and programs for the skills and job training necessary for veterans to re-integrate into the workforce. As we shall see, today’s veterans are simply not prepared to adjust to civilian life, and persistently high unemployment numbers for recent veterans are a reflection of this.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the unemployment rate for veterans who have served since September 11, 2001 — referred to as Gulf War-era II veterans — was 7.2 percent by the end of 2014, compared to 6.0 percent for non-veterans. For female Gulf War-era II veterans (20 percent of that veteran population), the unemployment rate stands at 8.5 percent, compared to 6.9 for men. For both men and women, the unemployment rate for non-veterans (6.2 and 5.9 percent respectively) was lower than for veterans (8.5 and 6.9 percent). Perhaps most stark was the unemployment rate for veterans aged 18 to 24, which stands at 16.2 percent, 3.8 points higher than compared to non-veterans of the same age. [1]

Additionally, the Pew Research Center has reported that only 45.4 percent of Gulf War-era II veterans felt prepared to re-enter the civilian job market after leaving the service. That number drops to 34.1 percent when isolating for veterans aged 18 to 30.[2] Pew has also found that 44 percent of all Gulf War-era II veterans had a ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’ difficult transition back to civilian life, up from 25 percent for veterans of previous conflicts.[3]

A number of programs are in place to address this. The Jobs for Veterans Act (JVA), passed in 2002, gives veterans priority in receiving job-training services. This is a program that can and should be expanded. There are even non-profit organizations, like SEEDCO, that use the JVA model to help provide placement to returning servicemen and women, to the tune of around 150 jobs a year.[4] The Real Warriors Campaign also works to provide potential employer tools to provide opportunities to veterans as they come home, work that could be expanded at the federal level. While many veterans’ assistance programs target the job seekers themselves, little is done to work directly with employers. The Veterans Workforce Investment Program attempts to do this, but does not target private, for-profit businesses, instead looking for external organizations that help to provide job training, such as Hire Heroes USA.[5]

Yet these programs still don’t seem to be hitting the mark. The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, Transition Assistance Program, and Veterans Workforce Investment Program, among others, all do a lot to help veterans in ways not done following previous conflicts. But the persistently high unemployment rate among veterans remains a problem.

As a country, we have made a concerted effort to pay attention to and care for our veterans, often regardless of how we view the conflicts in which they served. All too often, however, that attention focuses on physical and mental health in the re-integration process. This overlooks the troubles faced in fully re-entering society. Jobs can often be scarce – particularly in these economic times – and the skillsets attained in the service do not necessarily match well with the positions available.

What is necessary is a two-fold approach. First, private entities must receive expanded support – both from private and public sources – in order to provide their services to a wider array of servicemen and women. Second, the government programs in existence must also receive greater funding. In particular, the government should take an increased role in working with employers over simple job training for returning veterans. The current model focusing almost exclusively on the veterans themselves has proven inadequate. Attempts should be made to work with employers on opportunities to provide openings and positions that can be targeted toward returning veterans.

This is an issue where Congress should absolutely be able to find the will to act. As Jill D. Lawrence explained in a Brookings Institution paper, the unifying cause of veterans’ welfare coupled with an alarming lack of resources has had the potential in the past to catalyze congressional action. There is reason to believe we could see that again here. But in order to do that, there must be a sharp uptick in public focus and outrage.

The VA Hospital scandal brought attention to the systems inability to live up to the mandate of caring for those who have served. While this problem leaves far fewer physical remnants, the economic, psychological, and social damage is just as real. There are things that can be done; it all comes down to the will of the American public to let Congress know that reform must be made a priority.

  [1] “Employment Status of Veterans — 2014.” Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, 18 March 2015. Web. 27 June 2015. http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/vet.pdf.

  [2] DeSilver, Drew. “Most-recent veterans say military prepared them for civilian work.” Pew Research Center, 11 November 2013. Web. 27 June 2015. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/11/11/most-recent-veterans-say-military-prepared-them-for-civilian-work/.

  [3] Drake, Bruce. “WashPost/Kaiser: Many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans bring home the burdens of war.” Pew Research Center, 4 April 2014. Web. 27 June 2015. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/04/04/washpostkaiser-many-iraq-and-afghanistan-veterans-bring-home-the-burdens-of-war/.

  [4] “Reintegration of Veterans into the Workforce and Small Business Community.” SEEDCO, 10 May 2011. Web. 27 June 2015. http://www.seedco.org/reintegration-of-veterans-into-the-workforce-and-small-business-community/

  [5] “Veterans Workforce Investment Program: Worksheet.” Department of Labor. Web. 27 June 2015. http://www.dol.gov/vets/programs/vwip/vwip_fs.htm

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