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Veterans find a rude welcome.

Byline: Winston Ross The Register-Guard

EDITOR'S NOTE: As the wars in the Middle East wind down, tens of thousands of veterans are returning home, joining those who already have made it back. But in a still-weak economy, the transition back into civilian life is not always easy, and some are struggling to find work while facing barriers that their civilian counterparts don't.

SPRINGFIELD - At the moment, Sgt. Maj. Shawn Vinson is basking in the glory of being home.

After a year in Afghanistan, a birthday and Father's Day and Thanks giving away from his family, the 38-year-old veteran surprised each of his children at their respective schools last month upon his return to Springfield, his wife aiming the video camera as the kids leapt into his arms.

Vinson is a family man. Family is why he left the Army National Guard in 1998 after the birth of his first child, Brad. Even the one weekend a month and few weeks a year he spent away from home was too much, and his electrician job at Monaco Coach provided enough income.

Then he and his wife, Angela, both were laid off from Monaco, on the same day in March 2009 in the thick of the worst U.S. economy in decades. After months of searching fruitlessly for a new job, and with mortgage payments stacking up, Vinson reluctantly wound up choosing what seemed the only way to keep the family house from foreclosure: the military.

He's among legions of veterans who made similar choices, thanks to a lost job or inability to afford college. And what they're finding out now, as the war in Iraq draws to a close and President Obama reduces troop levels in Afghanistan, is that the economy they left isn't the same as the one they're coming home to.

Many of the 1.9 million men and women who have returned to civilian life in the United States from the wars spawned by the 2001 terrorist attacks have come back looking for work in manufacturing, mining, construction and transportation - jobs that, if they didn't dry up before the soldiers went overseas, went away while they were serving their country.

Veterans from all over the nation have returned home to find that their industry has shriveled, and what jobs they can find aren't the ones for which they're qualified.

"They come back to a whole new world, and they're lost," said Karen Fleener-Gould, manager at an 18-month-old program at St. Vincent de Paul set up to serve homeless veterans, called Veterans in Progress.

An unemployment gap

The changing economy is among several daunting factors that explain a gap in the un employment rate between "Gulf War II" veterans and civilians.

Others include veterans whose skills don't translate to the current job market, employers who are reluctant to hire veterans for fear the veteran may be suffering from post- traumatic stress disorder, veterans who aren't aware of the resources available to them, and the sheer number of soldiers coming home all at once and competing for the same jobs.

For those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan since Sept. 11, the unemployment rate is 11.7 percent. The national average for civilians is at 8.6 percent.

In 2009, 75,000 Iraq and Afghanistan era veterans found "long-term" unemployment - 15 weeks or more. For those ages 18 to 24, the statistics are even more striking: One in five young Gulf War II veterans is out of work.

"Sometimes, their jobs have been eliminated," said Gary Dominick, veterans coordinator with the state Employment Department. "Sometimes, the skills in the jobs they had previously, those have changed, and they no longer have the skill level they need."

Shawn Vinson is overjoyed at being reunited with his clan. Thoughts about that gnawing deadline that now approaches, when his unemployment benefits run out, can wait.

"I feel pretty confident," he said a few days after Christmas. "But it's still only December."

The worst of timing

When MR1 Lance Wilson returned in 2008 from his yearlong stint as a prison guard in Iraq, the 38-year-old found himself in a job hunt at the worst possible time, the height of the recession.

Wilson had a job before he left, but the manufacturer he worked for laid off people "in droves" during the time Wilson spent overseas.

When he got home, he said "I couldn't get my job back." And when he started looking for work elsewhere, he found out quickly how bad the economy was.

"I couldn't buy a job," Wilson said.

He spent 18 months looking for work, scraping together temporary jobs here and there before landing a job as a material handler at Hearthside Foods, which had bought Eugene-based Golden Temple's cereal business.

One of Wilson's problems was finding employers who thought his skills translated to civilian work, he said.

"When I came back, nothing was going to help," he said.

Some companies have become wary of hiring or re-employing National Guardsman and Reservists because of their "unprecedented mobilization rates," according to a report from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, or IAVA, a New York-based nonprofit association with 200,000 members.

Under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994, federal law prohibits employers from denying re-employment to returning veterans on the basis of their past, present or future military service obligation. But 36 percent of employers surveyed by military.com recently said they were unaware of the law.

"Tens of thousands of reservists returning from combat are not being promptly re-employed, or when re-employed they are not receiving the pay, pensions, health care coverage and other benefits they are entitled to," the report says.

In part, that's because many veterans don't know what they want to do when they get home and they don't know what state and federal resources are available to help them find work and transition from military life, Dominick said.

Along with an effort to educate veterans about their options, his agency helps line them up with jobs, with a premium not just on any job but one that is a good match - so that if they do get hired, they stay hired.

Mastering the art of the interview is key among those efforts, Dominick said.

"That's the major thing we work with the individual veteran on," he said. "How to sell yourself."

Returning to normal

Another issue that's tough for some returning veterans is to restart lives that were interrupted when they went overseas, from finding day care to reinstating a driver's license, said Tonja Pardo, director of the Veterans Employment and Training Service, a U.S. Department of Labor program.

"Those kinds of normal life issuesa... can be a major employment barrier for veterans who can't drive to work, can't get a car loan to transport themselves to employment, maybe don't have a bus pass," Pardo said. "Maybe their credit is suffering, they have unpaid traffic violations resulting in their license being revoked."

According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, "recently separated" service members earn on average nearly $10,000 less per year than nonveterans. That may be in part because 61 percent of employers recently surveyed by the IAVA said they don't believe they have "a complete understanding of the qualifications ex- service members offer."

"It's kind of a weird conundrum," Dominick said. "While in the military, they gain these exceptional technological skills. But in the civilian world, there's not always a direct translation."

A survey conducted by the website military.com found that 64 percent of employers report that veterans need "additional assistance" to make a successful transition into the job-seeking market, with 27 percent citing a need for stronger interviewing skills.

"This wage gap could continue for decades," according to the nonprofit. "Vietnam veterans earned significantly less than their civilian peers till they were in their 50s."

Back to school

The veterans Fleener-Gould works with generally fall into three categories: They wanted to make the military a career and it didn't work out for one reason or another; they lost a job before or upon deployment and couldn't find a replacement when they returned; or they are back in school.

Recently separated veterans have had the most success with the third route, said Steve Hickson, veterans representative for the state Employment Department. In 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 31 percent of Gulf War II veterans ages 18 to 24 were enrolled in school.

Going back to school is probably the best choice for most veterans of Gulf War II, Hickson said.

That's because the GI Bill's two different versions provide veterans with a monthly stipend while they're enrolled that can be used to pay the rent. Also, they can earn tax-free wages through work study.

The take-home wages are often higher than many veterans could earn if they worked full time, especially in this economy.

"You're pushing $2,000 a month in income, and getting an education," Hickson said.

There are some initiatives under way to help more veterans find work.

Help on the way

On Nov. 21, Obama signed into law the Vow to Hire Heroes Act, which includes tax credits for businesses that hire veterans, along with additional resources for veterans seeking jobs, education and training.

The month before, the White House called on community health centers across the country to hire 8,000 Gulf War II veterans, using funding provided by the health care reform act approved in 2009.

Nearly one-sixth of recent veterans are employed by the federal government, according to a recent congressional study using Bureau of Labor Industries statistics. Nearly a third of recent veterans work in the public sector generally.

"Just think about the skills these veterans acquire at a very young age: the leadership they've earned, the technology they've mastered, the ability to adapt to changing circumstance that you can't learn in the classroom," Obama said. "This is exactly the kind of leadership and responsibility every American business should be competing to attract."

Getting that message out is part of what veterans' advocates do. Last November, Pardo's program hosted a "Hiring Our Heroes" job and career fair in Portland; 88 employers showed up looking specifically for veterans to fill open positions.

Part of Dominick's job is meeting with employers to persuade them veterans have acquired many valuable qualities during their time overseas: "understanding the mission, getting the job done, showing up for work, being a leader or being able to be led in a unit. All of these are inherently positive."

But some employers are reluctant to hire veterans precisely because of their experience, because of the stress and trauma many soldiers have had to endure in Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflicts.

"Some individuals have traumatic brain injuries, huge explosions they've gone through, concussions," Dominick said. "It's not an unfair perception, but sometimes I think it's exaggerated."

Shawn Vinson is about to find out whether any of these efforts will help him find a job now that he's back home.

He drove a tactical tractor-trailer rig in Afghanistan; he is hoping to get a commercial driver's license here so that the skills he picked up overseas can translate to a job back home.

Vinson holds out a little - but not much - hope of returning to the recreational vehicle industry, where he worked as an electrician for 12 years until 2009.

What he does hope is that he won't wind up in the same financial pinch he did before: four months behind on his mortgage, with a family to feed.

Tomorrow: Some vets, unable to find work, have ended up homeless.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

A number of government agencies and nonprofit groups provide information and assistance to returning veterans, including: The Department of Veterans Affairs: www.vetsuccess.gov

Warrior Gateway: A nonprofit group that connects members of the military, veterans and their families with government and nonprofit resources, www.warriorgateway.org,

The state Employment Department: The agency offers employment, training and education resources, www.oregon.gov/EMPLOY/VETS/index.shtml

Helmets to Hardhats: Connects veterans with careers in construction, at www.helmetstohardhats.org.

PART ONE OF TWO

TODAY: Veterans return to a hostile job environment

MONDAY: Some returnees are without jobs and homes
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Title Annotation:Local News
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Geographic Code:9AFGH
Date:Jan 15, 2012
Words:2034
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