The Next Battle: Veterans are fighting for jobs on the homefront.

After 24 years in the military, including three tours in Iraq and service as a scout sniper in Afghanistan, Joe Tretta was ready for a change. “I wasn’t young anymore,” he said. “It was no fun sleeping on the ground.” Mr. Tretta had also spent six months in a hospital recovering from injuries to his leg, head and shoulder after a roadside bomb exploded. He retired from the military in February 2010, but he still wanted to work. His Veterans Affairs representative directed him to Helmets to Hardhats, a national employment and training service that connects veterans with opportunities in the construction industry.

Mr. Tretta, who now lives in Bel Air, Md., filed an application online and waited. Given the massive downturn in the construction industry, openings were few and far between. But a year later he got a call from the carpenters’ union apprenticeship program in Baltimore and jumped at the opportunity. His is a success story, but one to which fewer and fewer returning veterans can relate.


With a decade of military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, the armed forces anticipate a major reduction in personnel. The number of active duty soldiers in the U.S. Army is to be cut by nearly 60,000; tens of thousands of marines, sailors and air force members will join them. This newest generation of veterans will soon re-enter a struggling civilian economy that is not generating sufficient employment for job seekers.

They will face daunting challenges in the labor market. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, just over 8 percent of adults were unemployed in 2011. But among the 1.9 million who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001, that number rises to 12.1 percent. For the youngest veterans, between the ages of 18 and 24, the unemployment rate is 29.1 percent.

It is no wonder, then, that for the second year in a row, the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America has made veteran unemployment the focus of its “Storm the Hill” legislative initiative. The Great Recession has made life difficult for every American seeking work, but I.A.V.A. has helped shine a light on issues that complicate the job search for post-9/11 veterans: (1) since veterans leaving the service are automatically enrolled in the reserves and subject to call-up, some employers hesitate to hire them; (2) stereotypes about post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries cause unnecessary anxiety in potential employers and colleagues; and (3) employers—fewer of whom today than in the past have a history of military service—find it difficult to translate military experience into civilian job qualifications.

In the fall of 2011, in one of the few successful bipartisan initiatives of the year, Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida, a Republican, and Senator Patty Murray of Washington, a Democrat, who chair the veterans’ affairs committees of their respective houses, combined elements of each one’s initiative to create the “VOW to Hire Heroes Act.” By July 2012, the act offered tax credits to employers who hire veterans, expanded G.I. Bill opportunities for higher education and vocational training, directed the Department of Labor to help translate terminology for military skills and training into civilian sector job qualifications and strengthened antidiscrimination laws protecting service members.

Protecting Veteran Rights

“There is definitely evidence that members of the Guard and Reserve are finding it difficult to gain employment because employers appear to be increasingly reluctant to hire employees who may be called for multiple tours of duty,” said Representative Miller. Although much of the public does not know it, employment discrimination against a person because of veteran status or military commitments is unlawful. Under the 1994 Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, employers are not only forbidden to discriminate in offers of employment but are required to provide prompt re-employment to those returning after a tour of duty. This is a critical protection in today’s military, which relies heavily on members of the Guard and Reserves who may have to leave a civilian job on short notice. (The Department of Defense reported that as of May 15, 68,734 reservists were on active duty with the various branches.)

Reports to Congress show that the Labor Department looks into 1,400 or more Userra-related complaints per year. If a complaint is substantiated and an employer refuses to make whole the employee in question, the complaint can be referred to the Department of Justice for legal action. In some cases, the employers involved are household names. Last November Justice reached a settlement with Lowe’s Hardware in one such case; in April, the department filed suit against Home Depot. Justice said store managers in Flagstaff, Ariz. complained about a veteran’s absences due to military duties and unlawfully fired the department supervisor. (Home Depot declined to comment for this story). In May, Home Depot agreed to pay the supervisor a settlement of $45,000 and to make changes to its military leave of absence policy.

In February The Washington Post, relying on documents gathered under the Freedom of Information Act, identified the federal government itself as the single biggest violator of veterans’ employment and re-employment rights. Of the 1,548 complaints filed in 2011, The Post reported, more than 18 percent involved federal agencies, with the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs as the top two offenders. The report deeply embarrassed the White House. John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, announced a “zero tolerance” policy for Userra violations by federal managers. But paradoxically, these figures remind us that the federal government is a remarkable success story when it comes to hiring veterans. Uncle Sam racks up the most complaints because he is far and away the largest employer of veterans.

Under the Veterans’ Preference Act of 1944, the United States made a commitment to favorveterans for civil service jobs, a decision that has turned the federal sector (including the U.S. Postal Service) into a major employer of vets. While veterans made up about 8 percent of the American work force over all in 2011, they accounted for 28.5 percent of new hires by the federal government, according to reports by the Office of Personnel Management. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show that while 2 percent of the civilian work force is employed by the federal government, over 14 percent of post-9/11 veterans with jobs work for Uncle Sam.

“Veterans’ preference means that, all things being equal, the job will go to the veteran,” explained Mary Jean Burke, an American Federation of Government Employees executive vice president who represents employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Overall, about a quarter of federal employees have served our nation in uniform.

This generation of veterans, however, is leaving the military during a time when the federal work force is being targeted by deficit hawks, whose proposed cuts would shrivel a major source of employment for those leaving active duty. Between 1969 and 1978, when the last generation of veterans returned from Vietnam, the work force employed by civilian agencies of the federal government grew steadily. Today, by contrast, the White House anticipates freezing federal employee counts at current levels. And the budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, calls for a 10-percent reduction in these positions over two years. Outside of Veterans Affairs, there will be few federal openings in the coming years. And the jobs coming on line in Veterans Affairs are not the sort for which enlisted personnel readily qualify.

Healing Invisible Wounds

Veterans Affairs, for example, recently announced plans to hire 1,900 mental health professionals. “There are a lot more invisible wounds than visible wounds,” said Ms. Burke, “mental health issues, addiction disorders.” Improved medical treatment and body armor have increased survival rates for troops injured on the battlefield. The war in Afghanistan is the longest war in U.S. history, surpassing World War II, Vietnam and Korea, with only a fraction of the fatalities. Multiple tours of duty and improvised explosive devices have taken a toll on our servicemen and women in other ways, including traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction problems.

Dwain Sliger sees the results. Mr. Sliger, who served as a Navy chaplain in Iraq, now counsels returning veterans at St. Patrick’s Center in St. Louis, Mo. As part of the Archdiocese of St. Louis Catholic Charities Federation, the center helps the homeless and those threatened with homelessness. “Today’s veterans are coming back to a society much more attuned to veterans affairs, with better behavioral therapy options and treatment for P.T.S.D.,” Mr. Sliger said. But, he adds, many veterans from the National Guard or the reserves can easily fall through the cracks because they do not return to a military base where these support services are available.

Mr. Sliger’s program, Project HERO (Housing, Employment and Recovery Opportunities) helps veterans make the transition to civilian life and work. V.A. Hospitals and offices in the St. Louis area connect vets in need with St. Patrick’s, where Mr. Sliger and others help them stabilize their lives, find housing, improve their interviewing skills and prepare resumes that translate their background into terms that civilians can appreciate. “A strategic corporal in Afghanistan or Iraq is leading people, working with translators, executing missions—that’s middle management. But to get employers to understand that requires education,” said Mr. Sliger. Last year, HERO provided comprehensive housing and employment assistance to 125 veterans.

From Helmets to Hardhats

Although P.T.S.D. is widespread, civilian perceptions about the disorder are overblown, said Robert Schwartz, a Wounded Warrior program director at Helmets to Hardhats, the agency that helped Joe Tretta begin his post-Army career. “People see the worst-case scenario on the six-o-clock news and think that’s what P.T.S.D. is about. But they probably already have someone in their office who sees a therapist every Wednesday night, and nobody says anything about it.” Mr. Schwartz helps explain facts like this to prospective employers in order to place veterans in jobs.

Union construction contractors call the union’s hiring hall when they need a plumber, painter or electrician and in turn pay a fixed contribution, perhaps 50 cents per hour while that worker is on the job, into a training fund. The fund is jointly administered by the union and contractors in order to train new tradesmen to replace retirees. Helmets to Hardhats takes advantage of this system to place returning veterans in construction industry careers.

The program involves some classroom study combined with a great deal of on-the-job training under the direction of experienced journeymen in the field. Apprentices earn a prorated salary as they build experience, and they can become journeymen themselves after four years of progressively more demanding work. General Superintendent Rob McFaul, who supervises Mr. Tretta at Kimball Construction, based in Maryland, has been impressed. Vets like Mr. Tretta “are very grateful for what they have,” he said. “They appreciate a regular 9-to-5 job after what they have been through.”

Last year Helmets to Hardhats placed 662 veterans in joint labor-management apprenticeship programs. But that is less than half the placement at the program’s 2008 peak. Back then, a budgetary earmark with bipartisan support provided the seed money to recruit and place vets. Apprenticeship programs paid for the training.

“That $3 million earmark leveraged more than $30 million in training funds from the apprenticeship programs,” explained executive director Darrell Roberts, a Navy vet and former sheet metal worker. (Sheet metal workers construct ductwork for air conditioning systems, among other duties.) But in 2010 the new Congress prohibited earmarks, and the program’s funding disappeared overnight. “I had to lay off the majority of my staff,” Mr. Roberts said. “You never heard about the earmarks that were about putting veterans to work.”

Contributions from the construction unions and employers keep the program running, albeit at a reduced level. But Mr. Roberts worries about the future. “We have one million veterans coming out of the service in the next five years,” he said. “People who planned careers in the military are being told that they will have to leave. Where will these people go?”

That sentiment is echoed by Steve Kimball, senior vice president at Kimball Construction. “These guys put their lives on the line for all of us,” he said. “If anyone should go to the front of the line, it’s them.”

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