As unemployment ranks swell, veterans fare worse

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 30, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Victor Ruiz has been looking for work since January.

An Air Force pension helps, but it's not enough to keep his family afloat. His house is in foreclosure, and he and his two teenage children are leaving Fircrest, Wash., to live with his parents in Chicago.

Ruiz, 39, is a retired Air Force major who has an MBA, oversaw an $80 million computer network that helped track incoming missiles and nuclear detonations, and at various times supervised more than 100 people.

"I am the most educated of my three siblings, but I am the one moving back home," Ruiz said.

Ruiz's story isn't uncommon. Many veterans, especially younger and injured ones, are struggling to find civilian jobs in a troubled economy.

The unemployment rate for veterans who left the military during the past three years is 18 percent, nearly twice the national average. The average for all veterans is about 11.6 percent. Even those numbers, however, may not reflect the situation as the economy worsened.

Six months ago, members of the 81st Combat Team of the Washington National Guard were patrolling in such places as Mosul, Balad and Ramadi in Iraq. Now, after returning home in August, roughly 40 percent of the 2,400 Guardsmen from Washington state are still looking for work.

Meantime, the Pentagon during the third quarter reimbursed the Labor Department nearly $186 million for veterans' unemployment benefits, an increase of more than 70 percent from a year ago.

"It's just heartbreaking," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. "They volunteer, serve our country honorably and come back and can't find a job."

Murray, a senior member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, is working on legislation that would provide additional employment training and support for unemployed veterans and establish a program to help veterans start their own businesses.

Murray's bill also would provide grants to states that establish Veterans Conservation Corps to employ veterans to restore natural habitat, maintain local forests and parks and improve storm-water facilities. Murray hopes to introduce her bill in the coming weeks.

"I believe how we treat our veterans when they come home is an indication of the character of our nation," Murray said.

For his part, Ruiz, who joined the Air Force right out of high school and worked his way up from the enlisted ranks to major, said he's surprised he hasn't found work. It's been a difficult time for him and his family, he said.

"The military service allowed me to get an education, it let me lead a good life," he said. "But civilian life is very different. It's not the same."

Owen McCurty Jr. knows all about Ruiz.

McCurty works for the Washington state Department of Employment Security and is attached to the Airman & Family Readiness Center at McChord Air Force Base outside Tacoma. It's one in a string of public and private programs designed to help veterans find jobs.

It's not easy, McCurty said, adding that it's even more difficult for veterans who were injured or suffer from post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

"I've had veterans cry in front of me," McCurty said. "These are proud people. They think they can do it on their own. But it's a tough economy."

Every year, 220,000 service members exit the military. About 10 percent of them are retirees and about 10 percent of them are officers. An additional 80,000 to 90,000 National Guard members or Reservists leave the military.

Of every 1,000 troops deployed, 23 percent are combat troops who knock down doors and ride shotgun for convoys. The other 77 percent are support troops, many of them with computer and information technology skills.

"Our veterans should be remembered, honored and appreciated, not just on Veterans Day, but every day," Raymond Jefferson, assistant labor secretary for veterans employment and training, told a congressional committee earlier this month.

Jefferson, a West Point graduate, served in the infantry, the Rangers and Special Forces. During a training exercise involving a live grenade, Jefferson lost all five fingers on his left hand.

Jefferson said some of the federal government's programs to assist veterans haven't been updated in years. An external review of the employment training portion of the Transition Assistance Program, one of the main programs to assist veterans, is underway.

"Specifically, we want the content to become more economically relevant, immediately applicable and engaging for participants," Jefferson said.

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