National Guardsman searches for post-deployment work

This is the statistical snapshot of Bret Tindall:


He’s young (28), a post-9/11 soldier (one month home from Afghanistan) and, like many other veterans from this decade’s wars, unemployed (13.1 percent).

Here’s what the numbers don’t show: Tindall has a 6-year-old daughter who just lost her two front teeth; he’s got a baby girl who’s a month or two from taking her first steps; his wife works long hours to put food on the table.

He has held a lot of jobs — welding together school buses, building furniture — but he was out of work before his deployment last year. He started his job search just before Christmas, but two interviews and a nervous habit of biting his fingernail is all he’s gained.

“It’s been a shock,” Tindall said. “There’s really not a whole lot out there.”

In about a week, his accrued paid leave time expires, and the financial pinch begins in earnest. As a National Guardsman, his job with the Army isn’t full-time, so his separation from duty isn’t voluntary. While the national unemployment rate hit a three-year low, 8.5 percent, in December, the National Guard says as many as 23 percent of junior enlisted Guard and Army Reserve members are starting 2012 without work.

To combat these rising numbers, President Obama signed a law in November that gives businesses a $5,600 tax credit for hiring veterans and $9,600 for hiring veterans with a service-related disability. A similar act of Congress in late 2011 established the Veterans Opportunity to Work (VOW) To Hire Heroes Act. The act provides several channels for veterans to find work, including funds for retraining 45,000 candidates at community colleges and technical colleges.

“Our commitment to the troops must not end when they return home to our shores,” U.S. Rep. John Barrow, whose 12th Congressional District includes Augusta, said in a statement Friday. “There’s no better way to show respect to our warriors than to make sure they can transition from the military to full-time, good paying jobs in their civilian lives.”

Tindall has followed a few leads in person and applied online to maybe a dozen jobs, he said, but those applications always seem to disappear into some cyber black hole. What he believes he needs is connections.

That’s how Tindall found himself standing outside Wendy’s two weeks ago, finishing an energy drink and cigarette breakfast while commuter traffic streamed by on Gordon Highway. In a few minutes, he would meet Jason Koharchik, not a direct supervisor, but one of the platoon sergeants who traveled with him to Afghanistan with the National Guard’s 877th Engineering Company.

Koharchik wrote The Augusta Chronicle in December, just before the unit came home, asking the community to help his soldiers find work. It’s helped a handful of soldiers get a job, but there are others, like Tindall, who are a week or two away from collecting unemployment.

Koharchik, 35, is the quintessential “guy who knows a guy.” Several years working as a manager for the FPL Food slaughterhouse off Gordon Highway put him in contact with a lot of vendors. It’s his intention this morning to put some pressure on those contacts to help a friend out.

“That’s how you get a job these days, networking,” said Tindall, a Dublin, Ga., native.

Koharchik pulls up, a few minutes late, in a silver Ford F-150 and Tindall hops in. A tall-boy Monster energy drink identical to Tindall’s sits in the cup holder. It’s a habit picked up from the long hours they worked overseas, they explain.

As Koharchik drives toward the rising sun on Laney-Walker Boulevard, the men swap stories about the wife and kids. The pair were filling in roadside bomb craters and constructing helicopter landing pads on the weekends most guys back home were watching college football. Tindall, a Georgia Bulldogs fan, did catch the Outback Bowl. He calls the outcome “very disappointing” and leaves it at that.

Their first stop is a mulch distributor off Sand Bar Ferry Road. It’s been several years since Koharchik has worked with these contacts, but he bridges any awkwardness with a lot of back-slapping and good-natured ribbing. While Koharchik turns on the charm, Tindall stands to the side, a manila folder holding his résumé and discharge papers tucked under one arm. The manager says he’d love to help, but he has already laid one person off recently because of the economy.

He apologizes with a shrug that says “whaddaya going to do?” It’s a disappointing start to the day, but Tindall and Koharchik shrug it off and head toward the cluster of businesses near Gordon Highway.

This decade has seen an unprecedented focus on the mental health of returning veterans, which has its pros and cons. An emphasis on preventing suicides and reducing the stigma of post-traumatic stress disorder also puts the disorder in the public eye when Iraq veterans are charged with crimes, such as this month’s killing of a park ranger at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington. What effect that has on employers scanning the résumés of veterans remains unclear, but neither Koharchik nor Tindall said he has experienced any prejudice because of his veteran status.

It seemed their military experience had the opposite effect on their last stop of the morning.

“People coming back from overseas are disciplined people,” said Jim Whitehead Sr., who was eager to bring in some veterans to work at his tire shop on Deans Bridge Road. The kids coming out of high school aren’t willing to put in the same amount of hard work as veterans, he said.

After a chat about his experience, a promise that he is a “quick learner” and an endorsement from Koharchik, Tindall had some promising job leads to bring home to his wife.

“I can’t believe how this is coming together,” Tindall said.

Returning Augusta-based National Guard soldiers find job search difficult