Like the rest of Americans living in a time of great economic uncertainty, Timothy Bies is worried about his future. But Bies is at an even greater disadvantage than the rest of the country. Newly married and 20 years old, Bies is a combat arms soldier, training to deploy to Afghanistan. The job market is scarce, but it's especially scarce for veterans. For now, he's hoping that when he completes his tour in a year, there will be a place for him in the civilian workforce.
We knew it was bad for veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, but we didn't know just how bad until now. The numbers came out Friday, on the 6th anniversary of the Iraq War, broadcasting 11.2% unemployment. That's one in every nine veterans without a job. And because it is often tougher to track data on veterans, many believe the actual number is much higher.
"Every problem in America right now is hitting veterans harder," says Paul Rieckhoff, Executive Director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "We're welcoming troops home with a yellow ribbon and an unemployment check."The economy is so bad, that even though we're in the middle of two wars, many men and women are reenlisting, rather than trying their luck at the job market. While there are no numbers on how many are signing up as a result, the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force have met or exceeded their goals for recruiting and retention this year across the board.
The Army is making no secret that they're using the recession for recruiting and reenlisting. Sgt. 1st Class Julius Kelley, told USA Today, "It's job security (in the Army), and I try to sell that all the time. You don't have to worry about getting laid off in the Army." In response, Rieckhoff says, "Well it's true. But you do have to worry about getting killed."
Although he had always wanted to enlist, Bies admits that it is tough choosing between job security and risking your life. "It's great to be able to support my family. But I have a lot to live for and the possibility of throwing away my life overseas, getting killed, it's hard to decide what to do," he says. Bies joined the military primarily for economic reasons. It was the only career option he saw available that would provide him with a college education. I first discovered his story after watching Topaz Adizes' amazing new documentary Americana, which details what's going on in the minds of two high school seniors who choose to enlist. Reflecting on the film now, Bies is surprised at how little he knew back when he was signing up. Although he would have made the same decision, he saw on film, for example, such slights as his recruitment officer denying him a signing bonus.
Although he still has at least a year to go before leaving the military, he's already worried about what waits for him when he gets out, and how he's going to transition his Army training into a career. "Especially if you're combat arms like me, because what can I incorporate from going out on patrol into a civilian job?" Bies is counting down his active duty term to the exact month, week and day, but his full contract is for eight years, meaning he could be pulled back in at any time. While he's supposed to get out next year, he believes he will most likely be be "stop lossed," having his active duty involuntarily extended.
Bies is surrounded by friends who are reenlisting because of the economy. "Yes, I do know people who have reenlisted because the real world is hard," he says. "They're so used to the military life, when they get out, they're thinking, how are they going to get through this."
For Bies, reenlistment will be a last resort. "When I get back from Afghanistan I want to go about my own life." He's planning on pursuing a bachelor's degree, and eventually finding a job as a cop in a big city. Before he deploys, he intends on talking to police departments to hold a spot for him for when he returns. "Looking at my military track record, I don't see how they could deny me that."
But with police departments around the country being inundated with resumes, unfortunately, it might not be so easy. "If I cannot make it when I'm out, trying my hardest, working three jobs, getting two hours of sleep a night, then I will reenlist," he says. If it becomes a necessity, he would sign up in a different capacity, switching to become an ammunition specialist, for example.
And he already has an officer knocking on his door. "The reenlistment officer asked me the other day to reenlist and I said no." He told the officer he wanted to experience civilian life as an adult. The officer came back the next day and asked Bies if he had thought about it some more. "I thought about more reasons not to reenlist. My wife doesn't like me being in the military, because I'm going to be away on deployment for twelve months. I don't want the military to ruin my marriage. It's not worth it."
For now, Bies is focusing on the present. "I don't know how the economy is going to be when I get back from Afghanistan. My life depends on my next deployment. I can't see myself living in this economy without that deployment money saved." Deployment money is much higher than standard Army pay. There are allowances for family separation, imminent danger pay, and hardship duty pay. Additionally, paychecks while earned in Iraq and Afghanistan are doled out tax-free.
There is some hope for veterans in the new administration, as witnessed by the one-week turnover of a controversial budget proposal that would have billed veterans' private insurance companies for combat-related injuries. With the new stimulus, $2,400-per-person tax credits are being offered for employers who hire veterans. But there is still a sentiment that things aren't going to change ship anytime soon. "Obama is starting to pull troops out of Iraq," says Ries, "but look at how many are going into Afghanistan. He's not pulling troops out. He's just repositioning."
Part of the solution lies in more government-sponsored training programs for vets coming home in resume building, networking, and how to interview. While the resources that currently exist when you come home are scant, zero are offered before you leave, a gap which makes it even harder for soldiers to adapt. "We're training. We're getting ready to deploy. We're not worried about preparing resumes," says Bies, who admits that he doesn't have a resume. "When it comes to the resume itself, I don't have the skills. When you don't do something for so long you forget it. I learned resumes back in 9th grade." Bies said that he has a high school teacher he still communicates with who he ask for resume help when the time comes. "I don't think I would use the army to help me, when I have someone that I know."
On what he thinks would be a big help for soldiers now, Bies thinks the military could give more time for the transitional phase for soldiers, or incorporate more life training skills in their basic training. "I would say give more time for the soldiers who are about to get out of the Army than just the three months to turn their gear in and transition to civilian life." Additionally he thinks the Army should make college mandatory. "I know that vets reading this article will think it's not a practical solution. The Army is not going to make college mandatory," he says. "But the way the economy is, the majority of vets are going to be coming out and flipping hamburgers for a living."
Bies hopes that films like Americana will help people to better understand and appreciate what the military is going through. "If you don't support what we're doing, then at least support us as people," he says. "Civilians don't think about the military that much. I would hope that they don't take their freedom for granted." If we are going to solve this problem, we need to put the concerns of veterans back into the minds of Americans. To turn those unemployment numbers around, employers are going to have to make an active effort to recruit vets into their workforce.
In addition to more job training for vets, Rieckhoff would like to see a public awareness campaign from the Department of Labor and Department of Veterans Affairs to teach of the value of having a veteran in your work environment. "Employers need to be aware that they are not ticking time bombs. They are very valuable people. In tough times, you need tough people. We want to tell the American people that these are tough people who can serve you well." Rieckhoff also recommends seeking out other veterans for help, because they take care of their own. A good place to start is CommunityofVeterans.org.
Check out our WalletPop guide for more on resources currently available to vets entering the workforce.
The U.S. premiere of Americana takes place March 31st, at the AFI Dallas International Film Festival. For more information, and to watch the trailer, head to the Americana Project.
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