Veterans group pushes Congress to give unemployed vets from latest wars a hand

A veterans advocacy organization is raising the alarm about staggering unemployment rates among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and is pressing Congress for help.

The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America estimates that unemployment rate of new veterans is 14.7 percent, much higher than the overall 9.7 percent announced Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

While the Friday report indicated the economy added 162,000 new jobs in March, that wasn’t a relief for the group, which has made veterans employment its top legislative agenda this year.

“It's unforgivable that new veterans are bearing the brunt of the economic downturn,” Paul Rieckhoff, IAVA Founder and Executive Director, said in a statement Friday. “This is no way to welcome a new generation of heroes home. America can and must do better.”

IAVA plans to work with Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the chairman of the Finance Committee, to introduce a jobs bill for new veterans.

After a meeting with Baucus in February, IAVA announced that the Finance chairman plans to move with legislation that would create a hiring credit which rewards employers that hire veterans that have recently left military service.

Meanwhile, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who serves on the Veterans Affairs Committee, told a veterans’ roundtable last week that she also plans to propose legislation helping veterans' employment efforts, according to the Seattle Times.

Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are not statistically more likely to be unemployed than their civilian peers, according to IAVA, but veterans leaving the active-duty military service do have a higher rate of unemployment. Because of the tough economic times, many decide to reenlist in the military rather than face long-term unemployment, the group states.

Unemployment rates for new veterans have risen significantly over the last two years, according to IAVA. In 2009, the average unemployment rate for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans was 10.2 percent compared to 6.1 percent in 2007 and 7.3 percent in 2008.

The unemployment rate of reservists and National Guardsmen, who often leave behind civilian jobs when they deploy, has more than quadrupled since 2007, and now rival that of veterans recently discharged from the military. The jobless rate for reservists and the Guard stands at 10.6 percent compared to the 13.8 percent for recently-discharged veterans, according to IAVA.

National Guardsmen and Reservists, who typically serve in the military part-time, are seeing their civilian lives disrupted by multiple combat tours. Many reservists returning from combat are not immediately reemployed and do not receive the pay and benefits that they are entitled to, according to IAVA.

For the veterans who retire from active duty the biggest roadblock appears to be the lack of understanding in the civilian world for the skills veterans acquired in the military.

“These veterans, like me, who have spent years in the military gaining unparalleled leadership experience, are facing civilian employers that often don't understand our skill set,” said Tom Tarantino, IAVA’s legislative assistant. “I spent 10 years in the Army, 12 months in Iraq, and when I left the military, I was surprised by a civilian world that rewarded service with unemployment checks and a frustrating job search."

Many veterans also face a stigma associated with psychological injuries and mental health treatment.

Almost one in three troops who test positive for a mental health problem worry about the effect it will have on their career and even veterans not receiving mental health treatment fear that stereotyping of returning veterans may limit their employment opportunities, according to IAVA.

The federal government already has several programs tailored for helping veterans with employment. Among those programs are the Veterans Affairs’ Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment service; the Department of Labor’s veterans employment and training service, REALlifelines and America’s Heroes at Work; and the Defense Department’s Operation War Fighter and the Transition Assistance program.