Texas Veterans: Employment defies simple answers

Greg Jaffe The Washington Post

A two-tour Army veteran of the Afghanistan war pulled on a pair of old combat boots and headed off to his $8-an-hour job washing cars at a Ford dealership in Wichita Falls. “My military background don’t mean nothing,” he said. “I am just another guy with a GED.” An unemployed Iraq veteran in San Antonio woke up late, as he always did these days, and searched the online job boards for new listings. “Same garbage as usual,” he said. A 46-year-old former soldier, out of work for seven months, was so nervous that he was shaking as he waited in line at a veterans job fair in Louisville, Ky. “It seems like I second-guess myself whenever I talk,” he said. Also at the fair was a man who ran one of the biggest veterans employment programs in the country, with thousands of jobs to fill. “Okay, let’s do it,” he said, wading into the crowd and looking for someone to help.

The four are part of a postwar economy that is unlike any in American history for veterans seeking work. Unemployment among veterans has been called a “black eye on our society” by the head of a major veterans group. “A moral obligation” is how President Barack Obama has referred to it. “A national disgrace,” a prominent Republican senator has said. The truth, though, is more complicated. Veterans who served since 9/11 have a higher overall unemployment rate than their civilian peers – but it was only about 2 percentage points higher in 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They are more likely to have full-time jobs and on average earn more than peers who didn’t serve. They report about the same levels of financial stress as Americans overall, according to a new survey by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation. And yet what is steering the national push to hire Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans isn’t just statistics. It’s also an emotional need on the part of many Americans to connect with the 1 percent of the population that volunteered to serve during the longest stretch of war in American history. This impulse has led corporate America to make some massive promises. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Hiring Our Heroes program has collected pledges from businesses to hire 409,000 veterans on its way to a goal of 500,000. Wal-Mart has said it plans to hire 100,000 vets. Home Depot wants to take on 55,000; McDonald’s, 100,000; Starbucks, 10,000 more. “These young men and women who are coming home from multiple deployments are not coming home to a parade,” Howard Schultz, the chief executive of Starbucks, said in a recent television interview. “They’re coming home to an American public that really doesn’t understand, and never embraced, what these people have done.” Add up all the pledges and they total more than 1 million jobs for a population of unemployed post-9/11-era veterans that is estimated most months by the Bureau of Labor Statistics at 210,000.

The math is overwhelming: There are now about five pledged jobs for every unemployed service member who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan. It also raises some questions: If there really are more than 1 million jobs out there, why isn’t every Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran employed? Is there a problem with what the companies are doing? Might it have something to do with the veterans themselves?

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Christopher: $8 an hour On a recent morning in Wichita Falls, Christopher Lloyd wrestled with his own version of these questions, shaped by his frustrating five-month job search and his mounting debts: If so many people wanted to help veterans like him, why was he stuck washing cars for $8 an hour? Lloyd had come home from his second tour in Afghanistan to a divorce, a drinking problem and trouble controlling his anger. An Army psychiatrist diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder. “It started there,” Lloyd said of the path that led him to the Ford dealership. “And it ended here.” At the moment, “here” was scrubbing the interior of a trade-in that was headed for the dealership’s used car lot. An old “Support Our Troops” magnet had been stuck on a metal door near the spot where Lloyd dumped the dirty mop water. A few years ago, when the Pentagon was fighting two wars and budgets were fat, Lloyd might have been allowed to stay in the service until he reached 20 years and could retire with a pension. But by 2013, the Army was already well into its postwar drawdown, cutting spending and shedding soldiers. Current plans call for the Army to shrink from its wartime peak of about 570,000 active-duty troops to as few as 420,000 by 2019. As the Army culls its force, one worry is that it is pushing out many of its lower-performing soldiers, those who will have the greatest difficulty finding work in the civilian world. “I don’t know of any education or training programs to help those veterans,” said Phil Carter, who follows veterans issues at the Center for a New American Security. In addition, many of them have come home from war with bad backs, bad knees, high blood pressure, high levels of anxiety, bad memories and diminished cognition, which can make them that much more unattractive to employers. Lloyd, 31, is part of that group. He is also right in the middle of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 25-34 age demographic, which includes more than half of all unemployed post-9/11 veterans. This group of veterans faced a 9.5 percent unemployment rate in 2013. For the 25-34 civilian population, the unemployment rate last year was 7.3 percent. Getting a job was the last thing on Lloyd’s mind as he prepared to leave the Army. He was more concerned with recovering emotionally from a tough Afghanistan tour.

“This is all I know,” he told the Army psychiatrist who recommended that he be medically discharged after a decade of service. Lloyd left the military with a Purple Heart and a 60 percent disability rating for post-traumatic stress disorder. When he finally was ready to start looking for work, the veterans online job boards didn’t seem much help. All the jobs listed were in big cities, crowded with strangers, where Lloyd knew he wouldn’t feel comfortable. Eventually, an old squad leader who had settled with his wife and children in Wichita Falls invited Lloyd to move there. “We’ll help you find work,” the squad leader said, in effect becoming Lloyd’s employment program. His support system was a sister who tried to call or text him at least once a day and his mother, who on this morning had promised to wire him $700 so that he would have enough cash to cover his monthly child support payment, his heating bill and his rent. Lloyd’s plan for the future was written on the white board in his kitchen: “Stay Positive,” he had written. “Put yourself out there.God loves and accepts you. Lonely? Find a date! STICK WITH THESE GOALS. DON’T HESITATE IN LIFE!” Sometimes Lloyd wished that he had fought harder to stay in the Army. He still kept his hair cut in the high-and-tight style favored by infantrymen. He still wore his combat boots to work. On this morning, he had strapped a small pistol into a leg holster under his work pants. “If I don’t have it, I feel like I am missing something,” he said. “All I know is guns. I don’t know anything mechanical. I don’t know anything about cars. I don’t know anything about anything.” Now he was cleaning the interior of a Lincoln SUV. His boss, a 64-year-old with thinning black hair and a salt-and-pepper mustache, was working the back seat, where he offered some career advice. “You find anything, put it in your pocket,” the supervisor said. “Don’t tell anyone.” In 12 years of cleaning cars, he had found drugs, jewelry and cash. His biggest haul was $6,000 tucked under the floor mat of an old pickup that he was cleaning. Lloyd ran his hand along the crease in the bucket seats, digging for trash and hoping for a little bit of treasure. He pulled out a lipstick-stained cigarette butt. A few seconds later, he unearthed a quarter and then a dime. “Every little bit adds up,” he said. For this hour, at least, his pay was $8.35.

Nathan: Not in a hurry In another part of Texas, another former soldier was once again waking up late and browsing the online job boards. Some veterans don’t know how to search for work, others overestimate the value of their military experience and still others try only so hard. Depending on the day, Nathan Bianchi, 26, could be any of the three. Like a lot of young veterans, Bianchi had returned home unsure about what he wanted to do. On this day, he was looking at Wal-Mart’s “Welcome Home” veterans Web page and considering his two choices. There was a “Find a Job” button and a “Find a Career” button. Bianchi, an Iraq veteran and former sergeant, didn’t want to stack boxes in a warehouse. He clicked the career button and uploaded a resume that he had written as part of the Army’s mandatory career counseling program. It contained spelling errors (“security clearence”), typos (“with and increasing progression of responsibilities”) and military jargon (“grid thrust line templates”). “I just need a company that’s willing to give me a chance,” Bianchi said. “I just need a shot.” Off went the resume to Wal-Mart, which didn’t have a large enough human resources department to handle all the inquiries it was getting from veterans and so had begun outsourcing the initial resume review to another company. A career counselor in Chicago called Bianchi the next day, offering some generic resume tips. A few hours later, she emailed him links to 31 “military friendly” companies that had made hiring pledges.

Bianchi scanned the list. A Wells Fargo bank branch near his house in San Antonio was looking for a part-time teller. “It’s not something I envisioned for myself, but if they would give me a shot I would take it,” Bianchi said. He clicked on the link. “This requisition is no longer open,” the website told him. He had already applied to Home Depot, Hewlett-Packard, Verizon and AT&T. Sears was looking for part-time security guards and cashiers, but Bianchi wasn’t interested. “These are all bogus minimum wage jobs,” he said. After about 30 minutes he quit, feeling depressed and humiliated. He had been a star athlete in high school, one of the top wrestlers in Texas. In the Army, he had trained to call in artillery strikes, complicated and dangerous work. He was used to staying busy. Now the days were dragging by so slowly. “I feel like a defective person,” he told his mother. Still, he wasn’t in a hurry to land a job. Like all troops leaving the military, Bianchi qualified for six months of unemployment benefits. This is another facet of the veteran unemployment problem that is rarely discussed. Unlike many unemployed Americans, new veterans had time to search. The Pentagon was paying out about $1 billion a year in unemployment compensation. Troops collecting this money were counted among the unemployed. Bianchi had led a small team of soldiers when he was on active duty. He still served part time in the Texas National Guard, where he helped oversee a 36-soldier platoon. He wanted a job with similar responsibilities in the private sector – a management job, nothing less. He wasn’t going to settle, even if it meant holding out until his six months of unemployment benefits had been exhausted. Bianchi had a soldier’s confidence that everything would work out. “I know what I’m capable of,” he said. Bianchi shut down his computer for the day, played video games and bought a six pack of beer. He still had one month of unemployment benefits to go.

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Tim: A resume and questions In Louisville, meanwhile, at a veterans job fair, an unemployed former soldier watched as a man in a gray suit, crisp white shirt and silk tie approached. The man was Eric Eversole, just in from Washington, D.C., where he oversees the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s veterans employment program. These days, there are almost too many veterans jobs programs to count: There’s Hero2Hired, Hire a Hero, Hire Heroes USA, Operation Hire Our Heroes, Hire America’s Heroes. Eversole’s Hiring Our Heroes is one of the biggest and most ambitious of them all. In Washington, Eversole’s days were a blur of conference calls with companies, politicians and entertainers wanting to help. On one recent morning, the mayor of Los Angeles was offering to come to a Hiring Our Heroes fair in April. A big NASCAR team was interested in sending some of its drivers to the group’s hiring fair in Charlotte, N.C., in May. The rock bands Kiss and Def Leppard wanted to hire two veterans as roadies for their summer concert tour, starting in June. Pledges were rolling in, too. Hiring Our Heroes had passed the 400,000 mark in late February and was expecting to hit a half-million by October, two months ahead of schedule. The pledge process was simple and quick. Companies could go to the group’s website and in less than a minute fill out a form promising to hire a veteran or a military spouse. The tally was growing almost every day. The most frequent complaint Eversole received from companies was that they couldn’t find enough veterans to hire. On this day at the Louisville job fair, there were 134 of them. The fair was the 681st that Eversole’s group had held since 2011, and if it was similar to the 680 previous ones, about 10 to 15 percent of the veterans would land jobs. Some candidates with polished resumes and in-demand skills would walk away from the fair with four or five offers each. Eversole didn’t know much about the veterans who found jobs through his fairs. Even if the presumption is that these hiring programs are helping Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, none of the big ones track age or era of service, only that at some point the person was in the military. He did know that some veterans at the fair would get no offers at all, and these were the ones he began scanning the room for, hoping to get a better sense of who his program wasn’t reaching. Eversole spotted one veteran who was so nervous that he seemed to be trembling. There was at least one person like him at every fair. This veteran had close-cropped hair and a wispy goatee. “Can I look at your resume?” Eversole asked. “I’ve not ever done a resume before,” the former soldier said. “It scares the bejeezus out of me.” Eversole tried to put him at ease. “I can see that,” he said, glancing at the name on the top of the resume. The former soldier’s name was Tim. Eversole asked him about his career. The 46-year-old veteran said that he had parachuted into Panama with the Army Rangers in 1989, fought in the Persian Gulf War and two decades later deployed to Iraq. Eversole asked him whether he had ever been wounded in combat. “Which time?” he replied. He said that he had been shot in the hip in Panama and suffered multiple concussions from roadside bomb blasts during his tour as an Army mechanic in Iraq. “I got a couple of Bronze Stars and a Presidential Citation,” Tim said. “Does that matter?” “It matters,” Eversole replied. “It matters a whole lot.” Eversole pressed Tim to use an online “resume engine” that his group had designed to help veterans translate their military experience for civilian employers. The software prompted veterans with a series of questions about their careers. If a veteran answered that he was an infantryman, his new resume would say that he had “provided maximum versatility in chaotic and uncertain conditions.” If he typed that he was an Army Ranger, his resume would say that he had completed “one of the toughest training courses for which a soldier could volunteer.” The veteran’s resume would then be logged in a database that employers could search for promising candidates. The problem with the system was that veterans weren’t using it. Fewer than 10,000 had completed resumes in the year since the engine had launched, and while Eversole wasn’t sure why this was the case, he could sense that Tim was going to be one of the veterans who wouldn’t try it. “Don’t get frustrated,” Eversole told him. “I’ll definitely get frustrated,” Tim replied. Eversole promised to contact him in a few days to see whether the software tool had worked for him. Soon, Eversole was back in his rental car, headed to the airport and dialing a Vietnam veteran who had spent his post-military career with Toyota and now volunteered with Eversole’s group. He might be able to find Tim a mechanic’s job with a car dealership in the Louisville area. “I met someone who I am going to ask for your help with,” Eversole said. “He just needs to do a little work on his resume.” Back in Washington, Eversole told his staff that he couldn’t stop thinking about the soldier. “This guy was a war hero,” he said. It would turn out, though, that Tim wasn’t exactly that. He had never been an Army Ranger; he had never been wounded; he had never been awarded a Bronze Star. He had fought in the Panama invasion and deployed to Kuwait in 2011. It wasn’t clear from his military records whether he had ever crossed the border into Iraq. But it was true that he was an unemployed veteran who really needed a job, and the way Eversole reacted to that one truth against those many lies got to the heart of what the veterans’ unemployment problem had become at a time when two of America’s longest wars were ending and it seemed like everyone wanted to help. At first, Eversole speculated that Tim had suffered a mental wound, perhaps PTSD, in the Panama invasion. Maybe he had lied because he was struggling to find work and wanted to feel a little better about himself and his service. “He was clearly lost in the process,” Eversole said. “Even if his story wasn’t accurate, we shouldn’t take that away.” Eversole tried to keep his focus on the pieces of Tim’s story that were unquestionably true. Tim was part of a tiny minority of Americans who had volunteered to fight for their country during a time of war. He had still done something valuable. “My job isn’t to judge his service,” Eversole said. It was the end of another long day in Washington that had, as usual, been full of meetings with well-intentioned, important people who wanted to help veterans. Before he headed home, Eversole circled back one last time to his fleeting encounter with the former soldier from Louisville whose false story had so moved him. “How do you help a service member with those challenges?” Eversole asked, meaning it sincerely. He asked it again: “How do you help someone like that?”

Washington Post researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.