In 2006, Moses Maddox deployed to Ramadi, Iraq, a hotbed of the insurgency and one of the most dangerous places in that Middle East nation for U.S. troops. He spent much of his time standing in the open turret of an armored vehicle, bouncing violently from side to side as it rumbled down potholed streets and dirt roads. Maddox was later diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, the signature wounds of the Iraq war.
Like hundreds of thousands of other veterans, Maddox enrolled in college when he returned home, paying his way with money from the government’s new GI Bill. Earlier this year, as he prepared to graduate, he sent out 50 résumés in his search for full-time work. He got a grand total of one call back, and he didn’t get that job. Months later, he is still looking for a full-time employment.
Maddox, 31, is not alone. In March, the Labor Department reported that last year’s unemployment rate for veterans who have served since 2001 was 12.1 percent, significantly higher than the 8.7 percent rate for nonveterans. The disparity was even more jarring for younger veterans, who make up the bulk of the returning troops. Among male veterans ages 18 to 24, an eye-opening 19.1 percent were jobless. For nonveterans of the same age group, the rate was 17.6 percent.
With the nation about to mark Memorial Day, the persistent inability of veterans like Maddox to find full-time work serves as a grim reminder of the struggles facing troops as they return from Iraq or Afghanistan. The employment gap is also a sobering reminder of the vast gulf between how veterans are perceived publicly and how they’re actually treated. In the Vietnam War era, returning troops were sworn at and publicly derided as war criminals. Today, vets get standing ovations at baseball games and invitations to the State of the Union address. But they don’t get jobs.
“To be honest, I think being a veteran makes it harder to find work, not easier,” Maddox says. “People thank us for our service but are so worried that we’re unstable or have mental problems that they pass over us for jobs. I’m willing to come in on the ground floor, but even that doesn’t work.”
The ranks of unemployed veterans is also likely to swell in coming years as budget cuts force the Pentagon to reduce the size of the Army and Marine Corps by roughly 100,000 troops. Many of those soldiers and Marines will be effectively pushed out of the armed forces, leaving them desperate to line up employment. The number of troops who will lose their jobs would balloon dramatically if the budget sequestration kicks in later this year, requiring the Pentagon to make $500 billion in additional, automatic cuts.
There are several reasons why veterans—no matter when they leave active duty—have such trouble finding work. First, many simply have little idea of how to write a résumé, prepare for a job interview, or search out companies with openings. Service members don’t have to worry about any of those things; they just do what they are assigned to do. Compounding the challenges, as military bases near major cities have consolidated into mega-facilities such as Texas’s Fort Bliss—home to nearly 100,000 troops and military families—many veterans are returning to remote parts of the country. Just traveling to job centers to line up interviews is tough.
On the other side of the equation, many would-be employers have never met a soldier or a Marine, much less had any substantive interactions with them. That makes it easier to fear that former troops are potential time bombs because of their mental wounds, are too rigid to fit into a more freewheeling corporate culture, or have no real skills besides carrying weapons and killing people.
“The average human-resources manager at your average company has formed their views of troops from Hollywood and the media,” says Tom Aiello, a spokesman for Sears, the company that military officials say has hired more returning veterans than any other. “They believe in all of the negative stereotypes which may exist about veterans and figure that bringing them on is simply not worth the risk.”
Sears is hiring some 5,000 veterans a year, Aiello said, virtually all of whom have served in either Iraq or Afghanistan, as part of a total veteran workforce of 30,000. Perhaps fittingly, Aiello is a veteran himself; he was disabled after his Humvee rolled over shortly after the first Persian Gulf War.
Veterans’ advocates identify one other major factor that makes it difficult for returning troops to find work: Many civilian employers are either unaware of the specialized skills that service members develop while in the field or are openly dismissive of that training and experience.
“Many civilians simply don’t understand or respect military certifications,” says David Sutherland, a retired Army colonel who was a special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on veterans’ employment issues. “You can have a military truck driver who’s driven thousands of miles in Iraq being told to train alongside inexperienced 18-years-olds, or military medics who have done advanced emergency-trauma training and are being told they need run-of-the-mill first-aid training.”
This article appears in the May 26, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.