WASHINGTON, D.C. -- America's soldiers, sailors, airmen, Guardsmen and Marines are in near-constant combat against brutal, committed adversaries. Yet, in nine trips to Iraq and Afghanistan covering U.S. military operations for FOX News since 2001, I've never seen our troops bested in battle. But it turns out that not all the fights are on foreign soil, and sometimes the outcome depends on unusual allies. Last month, on March 6, the Supreme Court handed our Armed Forces a major victory when it ruled in Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights that colleges accepting federal funds had to permit military recruiters access to campus. Unfortunately, that's not the only battle that needs to be fought and won on the home front.
While preparing a documentary on the medical treatment our wounded warriors receive, a representative of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) told me that while health care and rehabilitation for those who have been injured has vastly improved since the Vietnam era -- the "real scandal is how many veterans of this war are unemployed." I initially thought he was referring to those who had been injured by enemy fire -- but he quickly educated me: "You don't have to be wounded in action to be 'unemployable.' Just to have served in this war makes it tougher to get a job."
Unfortunately, he's right. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the national unemployment rate is hovering around 4.8 percent. But for veterans of the Global War on Terror (GWOT), the unemployment rate is more than three times higher -- 15.6 percent. Why?
Part of the answer is found in the fact that so few corporate executives and personnel managers are veterans themselves. Couple that with a drumbeat of adverse publicity about the war, a mainstream media fixation on military "atrocities" and the constant harping about post-traumatic stress disorder -- PTSD -- and one has to wonder how any war veteran gets hired. On a recent flight to Texas, my seatmate, a corporate CEO, asked if "all the troops coming back from 'over there' were 'screwed up.'" He cited a study alleging that, "more than a third of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan needed psychological treatment." The actual number -- according to the American Medical Association -- is 35 percent -- a figure compiled by psychiatrists who have made diagnosing PTSD a self-employment program.
It turns out that veterans' unemployment is a two-fold problem. First, there are those -- about 180,000 of them this year, according to the Department of Defense -- who complete their service contracts and with Honorable Discharges in hand -- enter the job market. Though they are all volunteers, all high-school graduates and have years of experience in positions of extraordinary responsibility, far too many employers are turning them away.
The second group of unemployed "Global War on Terror (GWOT) Vets" are among the 542,000 National Guard and reserve troops called up since Sept. 11, 2001 and fired -- illegally, in many cases -- by employers more concerned with service to self than serving the country. A recent investigation by the Chicago Sun-Times found that, "with reservists away from their jobs more, some employers are balking at holding those jobs for them when they return, as federal law requires." The paper also noted that many employers are reluctant to hire members of the Guard and Reserve because of the "possibility" of deployment and that since the terror attacks on Sept. 11, there has been a 38-percent increase in complaints filed with the U.S. Labor Department accusing employers of job discrimination against reservists and Guardsmen.
The Federal government hasn't exactly ignored the problem of going from the front lines to the unemployment line -- but the disproportionate number of out-of-work vets proves that measures taken thus far are not working. The Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act of 1994 is supposed to protect members of the Guard and Reserve from job discrimination. Yet, as with all Federal "affirmative-action" programs, verifying that an employer has denied equal employment opportunity, pay, benefits or promotion because of military service has proven to be extremely difficult ever since the law was enacted.
In recognition that the problem is getting worse, the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Labor have begun a program to link veterans with job openings. The website www.hirevetsfirst.gov offers employers a place to post "help wanted" notices and provides useful advice for job-hunting vets. Unfortunately, too few vets and employers know about the site, and promotion is almost non-existent.
Veterans' unemployment is more than a national embarrassment -- it actually hurts national security and adversely affects recruiting an all-volunteer force. Military recruiters acknowledge that nearly half of those who agree to join do so believing that they will be "more employable" after completing military service. Once the word gets out that it is in fact harder to get a job after a "hitch" in uniform -- signing up quality recruits gets a whole lot tougher.
Clearly, threats of lawsuits and voluntary programs like Hire Vets First are not enough. It's time for Congress to provide tangible incentives -- like a federal tax break for businesses that hire war vets. It's the surest way to reward those who have served -- and help keep us the home of the brave and the land of the free.
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.
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