After fighting for his country, Iraq vet fights for a job

McClatchy NewspapersJune 6, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Eric Smith calls himself one of the lucky ones, returning home from the war in Iraq in 2008 with two arms and two legs.

But his luck has yet to produce a full-time job. In the past year, the 26-year-old Baltimore veteran has found part-time work as a bartender — which paid $4 an hour, plus tips — and as a mail sorter, which paid $8 an hour. And when he was desperate enough for income, he volunteered to be a test patient in a drug study, which earned him $1,200 for a four-night hospital stay.

It's not exactly what Smith had in mind.

After getting bored with high school, he quit as a 15-year-old sophomore and enlisted in the Navy two years later, serving two deployments in Iraq. He became a senior hospital corpsman, leading a four-man team in a 20-bed intensive care unit, gaining experience that he thought would easily translate into a good-paying civilian job.

That never happened.

Today Smith lives with his parents on Baltimore's east side, making ends meet with a $541 disability check he receives each month from the Department of Veterans Affairs, payment for the lower back, shoulder, hand, knee and ear injuries he sustained in the war. He said the ringing in his ears, caused by explosions, is continuous: "You just get used to it."

With a little help from Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, Smith has become the face of veteran joblessness on Capitol Hill this year, testifying at a hearing, speaking at a press conference and lobbying individual members of Congress.

"I am just one man, but my story reflects the struggle of over 200,000 veterans in the current job market," Smith told a Senate committee in April.

The situation is most bleak for young veterans who served in the military after Sept. 11, 2001, those returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In May, they had an unemployment rate of 12.1 percent, compared with 8.4 percent for all veterans 18 and older, according to Congress' Joint Economic Committee.

It's been an unlikely journey for Smith, who got his GED at age 17.

He grew up in a "semi-military family," with his grandfather, father and oldest brother all enlisting in the Army. It made a big impact on the young boy.

"From the time I was very young, that's all I wanted to do," Smith said. "I wanted to be an Army man or a policeman. ... And there's the romanticism of it. I mean, you don't know what to expect."

He wound up in the Navy instead, serving deployments of eight months and seven months. Looking back, he said, he was "young and dumb" when he enlisted, with dreams of coming home a war hero. He said he thought it would be a war where it would be easy to spot the enemy. But he learned that things were much more complicated.

"That was youthful ignorance," Smith said. "These guys, I mean, they hid among the civilians."

His 5 1/2-year stint included a four-month course to become a medic, which eventually led to his job as corpsman. Smith recalled treating many Iraqi civilians who got caught in the crossfire. And he witnessed his share of death.

"People die, sure," he said. "That's just the reality of the thing."

While Smith talks openly about most subjects, he won't say whether he actually shot anyone in combat.

"There was a war going on and I had guns," he said. "I used them."

When he left the military at age 23, Smith said it was a tough and lonely readjustment. He said that he had a record of "working under fire" and that he thought he had acquired a broad range of technical and leadership skills that would help him quickly land a job.

"I thought that easily that had to count for something," he said. "This did not prove to be the case."

When he got home, Smith said, he had $12,000 in savings, so he decided to take some time off. A few months later, he was broke. Then, when he needed work the most, the economy was battered by recession, and jobs were scarce. He said he applied for hundreds of jobs.

"There was a point where I was applying for five different jobs every day and just not getting anything back," he said. "It didn't matter, whether it was doorman at a nightclub or short-order cook, anything that was open, I was going to take."

After going to a two-week bartending class, he landed a part-time bartending job at a local VFW club, but that lasted only six weeks, until the club decided it had too many bartenders.

Then Smith worked as a mail sorter for two months after landing the job through a temporary employment agency. He's worked as a day laborer, too.

When his money was completely gone, he spent four nights and five days at a local hospital, participating in a study for a new drug for traumatic brain injuries.

"My mom felt it was more risky than I did," he said. "I thought it was safe enough to proceed. And I thought the money was worth it."

Smith plans to use the GI bill to go to community college this fall. He wants to get a degree in political science and sees himself working in Washington at some point. He wants to get his own house.

In the meantime, Smith has been spending much time on Capitol Hill, promoting causes as a volunteer spokesman for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

In late March, he and 27 other veterans participated in IAVA's "Storm the Hill" lobbying campaign. They went to 117 offices on Capitol Hill and met with 57 members of Congress, asking them to commission a study on military vocational skills and certifications. Smith and other veterans complain that the skills they learn in the military aren't enough to get them civilian certifications in their fields when they return home.

Most recently, Smith has been lobbying Congress to pass a bill that would — for the first time — require U.S. personnel to enroll in a federal job-training program before they're allowed to leave the military.

The legislation is sponsored by Murray, the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, who invited Smith to testify at a hearing and to speak at a press conference where she introduced the legislation.

"As the civilian unemployment rate declines, joblessness among new veterans continues to skyrocket — this is unacceptable," Smith said. "As a country, we must act now to reverse this trend."

Murray said that Smith puts a human face on the issue of veteran joblessness, providing a firsthand account "of what it is like to come home from two tours in Iraq, serving our nation, only to fight every day to find a job."

"You should know Eric's story is so not alone," she said. "I have heard this over and over and over again. We invest an incredible amount of money in training our servicemen and women in specific skills, in his case as a medic. And they come home and that doesn't count. That's just crazy for our country to continue to do that."

Paul Rieckhoff, executive director and founder of IAVA, said that the issue of veteran joblessness is "off the average American's radar" and that Smith has become an effective advocate for other veterans.

"Unfortunately, it's not unique," Rieckhoff said. "He doesn't want to bring attention to himself, kind of part of the military culture. But I think he's recognized that his voice is powerful and that he's speaking on behalf on a lot of people. ... What we're seeing with Eric is the tip of a much larger iceberg."

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