Augusta veterans discover finding employment is hard work

 

Brian Hammond pictured himself behind the counter of his own car repair business at age 26.

Instead, he’s watching his dreams as an unemployed, disabled veteran.

“I wanted a stepping stone,” Hammond said, but his service has become a hindrance, not a help.

The reasons Hammond can’t find work or hold a job – a war-related injury, limited civilian work experience, a poor economy – are shared among the 11.7 percent of veterans who are unemployed. That figure from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is several points higher than September’s national average of 9.1 percent and the 10.3 percent unemployment rate in Georgia and 11 percent in South Carolina.

On Monday, President Obama proposed a tax credit for businesses that hire veterans. The proposal includes a $2,400 “Re­turn­ing Heroes” tax break for employing a veteran who has been out of work for at least a month and up to $9,600 for companies hiring disabled veterans who have been out of work at least six months. The measure was heartily endorsed by the Senate and is expected to be sent to the House this week.

The proposal was applauded by veteran advocates in Augusta, who have seen firsthand the challenges met by veterans searching for work.

Jerry Baker, one of two veterans representatives at the Georgia Department of Labor’s Career Center in Augusta, said it is a shame more people aren’t hiring vet­erans, because they’re dependable and trainable and understand teamwork.

What sets younger veterans back is that they lack an employment history, especially when they go into the service straight from high school.

“For younger soldiers coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq, the job market is so tough right now,” Baker said. “They have skills, but experience is what’s hurting them.”

That was the case for Ham­mond, who joined the Marines after graduation from the Academy of Richmond County with the intent of serving his country and learning some job skills. His training as a field radio operator landed him in Iraq in 2004, where a suicide bomber driving a water truck destroyed his forward operating base. He returned home after a medical discharge with a bad back and a head full of bad memories.

From his perspective, his studies into becoming a field radio operator should have been the equivalent of going to a trade school. But there’s no use in the civilian world for his skills, he said.

“If I hadn’t gone into the military I would have had my bachelor’s degree now,” he said. “It’s frustrating because I put so much work (into training).”

Adjustments

Jim Lorraine, the executive director of the Augusta Warrior Project, said that in his efforts to find jobs for veterans, he has discovered employers are willing to hire former service members.

“But veterans don’t know how to access jobs, and vice versa,” he said.

Lorraine has identified several reasons why veterans have trouble adjusting to the civilian work force, with the difference in pay scale between a soldier and a civilian a big one. Even junior enlisted soldiers are making roughly $41,000 a year, with benefits including free health care and a housing allowance. To leave the service and start an entry-level job that likely pays less requires a serious lifestyle adjustment. Not every veteran is willing to take that step at first, Lorraine said.

Jeremy Penberthy has extensive job experience as a civilian kitchen manager. In Afghanistan, the former lance corporal managed a big budget ordering food for Marines and he typically worked 84 hours a week. He is not daunted by working a little overtime on the weekend, when restaurants are busiest.

“I love to work,” he said. “I’m just trying to get my foot in the door, and that’s what’s frustrating.”

After more than a dozen rejections, he began questioning whether it was something personal that was shutting the door. At one point he feared it was his status as a veteran, so he stopped bringing his discharge papers to job interviews.

“It kind of makes you wonder what America stands for,” he said.

Reservists

The challenges are different for reservists. Employers have to hold a job for part-time soldiers on deployment, but the law doesn’t specify that it has to be the same job or a full-time job when the soldier gets back home, Lorraine said.

And that’s if they still want the same job. Lorraine recalls a civilian paramedic who went to Iraq and cared for injured soldiers. Upon his return, the sight of a car wreck or similar traumatic event was too much for him to handle, and he had to launch a different career path, Lorraine said.

Unemployment among disabled veterans is nearly 85 percent.

Patrice Murray hurt her back during job training, and long periods without rest aggravated the injury. It eventually became a debilitating injury that kept her out of work. More veterans should be hired, she said, because they know about discipline, focus and teamwork.

“That’s what you’re trained to do,” she said. “It’s instilled in you.”

Bill Lawson, the national president of Paralyzed Veterans of America, was in Augusta recently to receive a check for $292,000 on behalf of Augusta’s vocational rehabilitation center for disabled veterans. Lawson, an Army veteran who became paralyzed through electrocution, said he felt as though his life was over when he was first injured.

But through Paralyzed Veterans of America he realized there were disabled veterans out in the job market who had far worse injuries. Lawson said he believes his initial reason for not applying for work is the same one that keeps employers from considering disabled veterans.

“Fear of the unknown plays a large part,” he said.

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