Discrimination against our country's heroes

Veterans looking for jobs face stigmatization

October 31, 2012

Brian Mann

Master Sgt. Cecilio Ricardo
Service members stand at rest at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq.

Read part one of Josh's story, here.

On one of the days I visited him, Josh Jones shared with me a video that one of his fellow Army buddies taped while they were serving in Iraq.

In the video, big orange fireballs light up the night sky. Their unit had just come under mortar fire from insurgents.

That seems like a lifetime ago for 25-year-old Josh. He’s been home for two years and since then has been living a life with much less excitement than what he’s used to.

After serving in Iraq, Josh felt like he had earned a decent job. When he returned home, he thought he'd work as a cop or a prison guard. Instead, he wound up unemployed for a year.

A broken promise

You hear this kind of frustration a lot from young veterans who served in the wars that followed 9/11. They have a sense that some kind of promise to service members has been broken. Many young veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq are struggling.  Unemployment for young vets hovers near 30 percent and tens of thousands of former soldiers are homeless. 

After spending years living a serviceman’s life of strict rules, regulations and customs, Josh felt unstable.

“I didn't know what the hell I was going to do. I was going to head home to my family obviously, but I didn't know where I wanted to go. I mean, I didn't want to take a step back in my opinion and work at some, be some cashier at a grocery store or a gas station,” Josh said.

Derek Osgood is a friend of Josh's, a 23 year old Marine who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

He says he feels like his service isn’t appreciated.

“I hate to say it, but when it comes to getting out, as soon as the military knows you're not going to re-enlist and you're leaving, it's like you're dead to them -- you know, you're just another body,” Derek said.

Derek and Josh are part of a veterans club -- a kind of military support group on the campus of Paul Smiths College, a school in upstate New York.

Josh says group members have a sense of camaraderie because in this environment, where most students are about five years younger than all of the veterans, there’s always someone who knows what it means to be a soldier.

At a meeting in the cafeteria, Derek says he's proud of his war service and thinks he learned important lessons from the Marines about discipline and hard work.

But when it comes to actual training that might give him an advantage in the civilian job market, he shakes his head.

“I picked infantry and when it came to job skills, that pretty much gave me little or none in the way of job experiences that I would benefit from,” Derek said.

Josh too is skeptical about the opportunities for veterans to climb the economic ladder.

“I think it's there, but it's more of a stepladder now. It has a ceiling to it. You can only go so high. Unless you have a strong network of people in power, it's a stepladder, not a ladder,” Josh said.

This kind of pessimism is common among vet. Studies show that even many service-members who come home with marketable skills are struggling to find good jobs.

Sometimes it's difficult to match military experience with civilian job descriptions. Sometimes it's just the sour economy.

But there's also a concern among military support groups that wartime veterans face an actual stigma.

Facing discrimination

Twenty-five-year-old Justin Jankuv is part of the campus military club. He’s a former Army soldier who fought in Iraq.

He says there’s a stereotype against veterans.

“Oh, this guys is from Iraq or this guy is a veteran. So, he's got post traumatic stress disorder or he's a loony...because there's a lot of people out there who get that impression of us,” Justin said.

Derek agrees. He says employers are afraid of taking a risk by hiring a veteran.

“It's sort of like they put a smile on their face and say ‘Yeah, you're a veteran, good on you, good on you we'll call you back.’ And in the back of their head, they're thinking, There's no way.  No way I'm going to hire him,” Derek said.

He adds that he’d rather have someone tell him they don’t hire veterans because it otherwise makes him question his performance in the interview.

A study released in June of this year found that many of these impressions among soldiers are accurate.

Employers told researchers with the Center for A New American Security that one top reason they don't hire veterans is a negative stereotype -- a fear that they might be "damaged" or might go on "rampages."

Ryan Gallucci, with the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a soldier advocacy group, says many civilian employers are simply ignorant about what goes on in war-time.

He says since only one percent of Americans have served in the current conflicts, it’s normal to have a cultural misunderstanding.

Gallucci did a tour in Iraq in 2003. He says important steps have been taken to help younger veteran reintegrate, including the 9/11 GI Bill and the Hire a Hero Act.

Without that aid, none of the servicemen interviewed for this story could have afforded college.

Finding solutions

Some companies have also set quotas for hiring veterans and created buddy programs that partner older service-members with young people just back from war.

A a new billion-dollar veterans jobs bill would have put 20,000 vets to work as cops and firefighters. But it was defeated by Republicans in September.

And Galluci says a lot more needs to be done by the government and by private firms to prove that military service is still a path to the middle class.

“So what we really are trying to do now is maintain the military's reputation as a quality force, that it prepares service members for good careers when they leave,”Galluci said.

He says that this type of preparation allows for economic mobility.

Josh Jones says he's grateful to be back in school, to have this second chance. Many of his veteran friends are still unemployed, working dead end jobs, or back living with their parents. 

But Josh says he's anxious about the day when he'll have to hit the streets again, afraid that long after the war is over, companies will see him too as damaged goods.

As the war in Afghanistan winds down, tens of thousands more Americans will be making this transition to civilian life.

Whether or not they succeed could how define the next generation sees military service: As an economic opportunity or one more dream that has turned into a dead end.