When U.S. soldiers returned from the Vietnam War, many never got the welcome they felt they deserved. Instead of parades, many got sneers and lectures. Since the Iraq and Afghan wars began, Americans have responded much better to veterans returning from U.S. missions abroad. We throw parades. We wrap our arms around them.
Then we forget about them as they try to enter the civilian workforce, typically with less success than counterparts who have never enlisted.
A recent survey for the Department of Veterans Affairs found that 18 percent of vets recently back from tours of duty are out of work -- and a quarter of those with jobs earn less than $21,840 per year. In the first two years after leaving military service, the official unemployment rate for veterans was 9.5 percent -- more than double the 4.3 percent rate for a group of demographically similar non-vets.
Ken Crawford, who tries to place veterans with jobs for the San Francisco veterans group Swords to Plowshares, told me it is "very rare" that he places a vet in a job that pays health benefits, much less offers a 401(k) plan. Men and women whom this country recently trusted to command others and represent America abroad now are flipping burgers and delivering pizza.
"A veteran should not go from saying, 'Sir, yes, sir,' to, 'Do you want fries with that?' or 'Would you like to supersize that order?'" Crawford added.
The problem isn't simple. Crawford believes that the military often does not develop skill sets that translate easily into the civilian job market, although the VA survey reported that many veterans have developed valuable technological skills.
There can be emotional issues -- which do not all fall under the rubric of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Some vets have trouble adjusting from the military regimen to workplace sensibilities.
Walter L. Williams, 33, now a case manager for Swords to Plowshares, recalls returning from tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait and spending 10 months on other people's couches. He had to learn how to fit himself into the routines of others -- as well as establish his own routine.
PTSD has turned into a two-edged sword. Advocates' focus on the trauma has delivered funds and programs to help shell-shocked vets. Yet the price is that this focus has undermined the image of men and women who served their country and are perfectly capable of holding down a good job -- but they have to be hired first.