© 2024 NPR Illinois
The Capital's Community & News Service
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Illinois Issues
Archive2001-Present: Scroll Down or Use Search1975-2001: Click Here

Unemployed Veterans: Those Who Served in Post-9/11 Conflicts Discover Occupations Hard to Find

Brian Clauss, director of The John Marshall Law School Veterans Legal Support Center, trains pro bono attorneys.
WUIS/Illinois Issues

In a sluggish Illinois economy, one group is finding it surprisingly difficult to find work: veterans of post-9/11 conflicts.

Because the federal government invested millions of dollars into their training, one would think experienced combat veterans would be ideal candidates to fill jobs. But when they leave the military, many find themselves struggling to find work, taking lesser paying jobs or any menial work where they can find it.

As of press time, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that Illinois’ unemployment rate at 9.5 percent was the second worst in the nation after Nevada.

More service members are expected to leave the armed forces and return to the shaky job market as the military plans to withdraw from Afghanistan by December 2014. “You have the double whammy of the military downsizing … and a crummy economy,” says Brian Clauss, director of the Veterans Legal Support Center at John Marshall Law School in Chicago. Clauss says many find it frustrating to get out of the service and not be able to find work. “They come back, they want to get to work. They want to be productive,” he says.

The military now requires exiting servicemen and women to attend resumé and job-searching workshops, but U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, a former U.S. assistant secretary of Veterans Affairs, says they are still not being prepared well enough to jump into civilian life.

“There’s a really poor transition,” she says. “They show them how to put on suits, but they don’t really help them identify the types of jobs they can do.” She says the issue is learning how they can translate knowledge gained in the military to apply to a civilian job.

Not every veteran is going through the same struggle. Older veterans or National Guard reservists with prior civilian work experiences are seemingly having a better time reintegrating into a tough job market. The challenge is most acute for veterans in their early and mid-20s. Most were not even old enough to enlist when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan first began in 2001 and 2003.

The problem seems to be a combination of youth, lack of education and lack of work experience outside the military. 

“When you come back, you have to be careful. You feel unstoppable,” says William Illa, now 27, of those who experienced Iraq and Afghanistan at a younger age. He joined the Marines in 2007 and served briefly in Iraq in 2010. “You feel you know all this stuff. And it’s hard to listen to people tell you things, and I think it’s hard for veterans to deal with a lot of that.”

Illa says he found discipline serving in the Marine Corps and saw returning to civilian life in part as a challenge to finish his undergraduate education. After the day-to-day frustrations associated with military service a lot of younger people “built up this idea in their mind that the civilian world is going to be so much easier,” he says.

But the transition out of the military may be more difficult than they imagined without knowing how to sell themselves to their full potential on the job market. 

Some of the unemployment for younger veterans can be attributed to those who choose to use their GI Bill benefits to become full-time students, but for others actively looking for work, there is a disconnect, Clauss says. Coming out of a highly regimented and structured existence, they can have trouble explaining what they did in their military jobs to a civilian hiring manager.

“A lot of them are young, entry-level,” he says. When these vets leave some of the most significant work they have known, they need to learn how to “demilitarize their resumés,’’ Clauss says, “and show the appeal that their experience gives.”

“Put that on your resumé: adaptability, dealing with issues of life and death,’” he says. “Coming out of the military, they are drug-free. They know how to show up on time. They are mature beyond their age. They are not like the average 22-year-old.”

Duckworth says sometimes that gets lost in translation.“You have young sergeants and platoon leaders, people who are 24 and 25 years old,” she says, “who are commanding anywhere from 10 to 33 people, and the employers ask, “So what did you do?” And they say, “I was an infantry platoon leader. I commanded 33 men.” To a hiring manager with little experience in military life, that may not mean much. “They don’t get that,” she says. Duckworth says what veterans need to say instead is something that will pique the interviewer’s interest: the military trains — often very young — people to take on positions of responsibility that go well beyond common civilian entry-level work.

Even if they do not want a job related to what they did in the military, they need to learn how to parlay that experience. Duckworth says they should be saying, “I supervised 33 people in all aspects of their work performance, their training; held them accountable, and maintained the budget for that.” Without being able to do so, it almost makes their military experience look like a hole in their resumé to some civilian employers.

And it’s not just an issue of finding jobs. For those who want to continue in their field outside of the military, they find that their military credentials are not accepted. A common example given by people familiar with veterans’ issues is combat medics. If a medic wants to leave the military to become an EMT, the experience does not really count toward civilian certification programs.

Medics “were doing some pretty serious medical procedures in combat,” Duckworth says. “They come home, and they gotta go through the whole process” to get recertified.

State Rep. Donald Moffitt, a Republican from Gilson, is sponsoring a bill to count some of that experience toward an EMT license in Illinois. “It comes down to this; We need more EMTs. If you’re trained well enough to save lives on the battlefield, why can’t you use those skills in the streets of Illinois?”

Even if veterans do not want to continue in the same occupation, their hometowns still might not have much to offer in employment.

The military recruits heavily from depressed urban and rural areas. Veterans who left for the military seeking enlistment bonuses and opportunities they would not find in their hometowns may not be able to find work when they return. They may have to consider moving to a different area where they can find a job. “If you’re coming back to someplace with no industry, maybe farming jobs or a couple of service jobs and few service industries in the county, I mean what’s your choice?” Clauss says.

Their job search is complicated further if they are dealing with emotional trauma or combat injuries. A lot of veterans leave the service well-adjusted, but others struggle with a spectrum of issues. 

Clauss says the unpredictable nature of the violence in Iraq and Afghanistan put an additional strain on troops. Mortars, suicide bombers and roadside bombs have been a hallmark of both conflicts. During a given day, they might not know where their next battle might be. “It’s not like World War II, where you had a front line,” Clauss says. Advances in combat medicine have helped save the lives of amputees and other injured soldiers who might have died in other wars. “They are coming back with issues prior generations didn’t have,” he says.

Women also are sharing a greater part of the burden. Seventeen percent of post-9/11 conflict veterans are female, up from 3 percent in conflicts such as the Gulf War and Vietnam. The long-term toll of shifting more women into combat is not yet known. “Women and men process trauma differently,” Clauss says. “Women tend to remember traumatic incidents in greater detail.”

The Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs is trying to reach out to female veterans. It is finding that some do not want help and see their military experience as the source of their problems readjusting.

“Post-traumatic stress disorder and military sexual trauma are both absolutely huge reasons as to why veterans come back and struggle with transitioning,” says Iraq War veteran Keely Dickinson, the department’s women veterans coordinator.

“They want to be left alone,” she says. “While resources are available to them, they do not actively seek out resources and benefits.”

Dickinson is encouraged by the positive feedback she has received from outreach efforts but realizes there is a limit. “We cannot force them [to claim] what they have earned,” she says.

Derek Bennett of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America says the V.A. is still struggling to meet the needs of female veterans. IAVA is lobbying Congress heavily because the V.A. has fallen far behind on processing disability claims for all veterans. An average disability claim now takes the federal agency several months to process. 

Clauss praised caseworkers at the V.A., but says they were clearly “overwhelmed” by the number of veterans seeking benefits.

Aside from getting their benefits, female veterans are looking at a drop in pay when they get other jobs. The military pays servicewomen the same as their male counterparts, Duckworth says. Younger female veterans are finding it difficult to find jobs that pay close to what they earned in the military. “Female vets have that added pressure,” she says.

“They haven’t worked in the civilian economy before,” she says. “A lot of these women are finding it really difficult to make ends meet.”

Reflecting on her own transition, Duckworth says she had it a little bit easier. When the combat helicopter she piloted was shot down in Iraq in 2004, she lost both her legs and had extensive time to recover in the hospital.

“It was a little different for me because I did spend 13 months in a hospital. So, my transition was much better than most of the young men and women coming home,” she says.

“I had 13 months of care, of counseling, of recovery. Most of these young men and women, when they come home now, they have maybe four to six weeks at most and then they are out there into the general population,” she says. As far as how to move their lives forward: “What I tell the service members is reach out and get help from everyone,” and make the most out of every opportunity. 

Illa works in the Veterans Affairs office in Lincolnland Community College in Springfield and sees some veterans unintentionally squandering their opportunity to go back to school. After their military service, he says, some consider their education as just “checking a box off” and can stumble or indefinitely delay their progress toward a degree.

Veterans who want to return to school, Duckworth says, owe it to themselves to research what kinds of jobs are in demand and what kind of education will realistically give them an opportunity to land a good one when they graduate. IAVA looks at Illinois as a veteran-friendly state, and Gov. Pat Quinn has been a longtime supporter of related causes.

State Sen. Jason Barickman, a Republican from Champaign, is sponsoring a bill in the General Assembly to waive educational requirements for veterans who want to leave the service to join a police force in Illinois. With diverse issues underlying the unemployment trends, Barickman, also a veteran, says there is difficulty finding a one-size-fits-all policy solution. “Where we see policy holes, we adapt as we can,” Barickman says.

Duckworth says there has to be a better way to get veterans more effectively back into society. “We have to make sure there is a good handoff to the next group of people who can help,” she says. “We need to make sure all of our young people are able to find jobs, and if anything, veterans should have an advantage because of their experience.” 

Illinois Issues, June 2013

Related Stories