Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series examining some of the challenges facing New Mexicans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Copyright © 2012 Albuquerque Journal
Jack Hill III, a highly skilled Navy welder, did three tours in the Middle East, but left the military before his fourth tour came up.
His wife, former Navy Lt. Odetha Hill, helped launch cruise missiles into Baghdad from the Persian Gulf during the opening days of the Iraq war.
Roy Huddleston, a former special ops sergeant, says he sacrificed his knees and back parachuting from “perfectly good airplanes” in the Gulf War, Desert Storm and tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division.
And Luke Pontillo, a former Marine lance corporal who never made it to the Middle East, is applying the discipline he learned in the Corps to his college studies.
Aside from their wartime military service and their current status as students at the University of New Mexico, all four veterans have one more thing in common: None of them has been able to find a permanent job.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans have lost jobs during the deepest recession since the Great Depression, but new veterans have been particularly hard hit. The unemployment rate for veterans who served on active duty since September 2001 — a group the VA refers to as “Gulf War-era II” veterans — was 12.1 percent in 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The U.S. jobless rate that year was 8.9 percent.
So far this year, the unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans has averaged 9.78 percent, compared with the overall unemployment rate of 8.14 percent. New Mexico’s unemployment rate averaged 6.77 percent through September.
The gap persists despite steps the Obama administration has taken to address veteran unemployment, ranging from special programs to employ veterans to tax breaks for their employers.
Veterans cite several reasons for their plight: a scarcity of living-wage jobs; difficulty transferring their military skills to civilian jobs; a perceived hesitance by employers to hire National Guard and Reservists because of multiple deployments; and employers who don’t understand post-traumatic stress disorder or other service-related medical issues.
Few jobs, fewer careers
Of the student veterans interviewed for this story, Odetha Hill, vice president of Student Veterans of UNM, came the closest to launching a successful post-military career. Shortly after leaving the Navy in 2006, she landed a good-paying job in a ship-modernization program at the Norfolk, Va., shipyards.
That seemed ideal for her and her young family — until her mother became seriously ill. That required the Hills to move back to Albuquerque and into an uncertain future.
Jobs here were hard to come by, and the ones that were available paid little, Odetha Hill said.
“When I came to look for a job, it was for part time because nobody was hiring full time,” she said. “… I put résumés out, attended job fairs — everything I could to find a job.” She finally landed a job in retail but found it hard to fit in.
“The (civilian) work ethic isn’t the same as we experienced in the military,” she said. “If we didn’t do things in a certain way, people could get killed.
“When I moved back here, I worked in retail at the mall with kids 18, 19 years old,” she said. “If they didn’t want to do something, they just didn’t do it. They’d get upset with me and call me a brown-noser, because, whatever tasks were given to me, I got them done, and in a timely fashion. It was a very foreign concept to them.”
That gap in work ethic, and the dearth of jobs in general, she said, is a common complaint among veterans.
“I’ve had a couple of friends who got out of the Marine Corps and tried to get a civilian job,” she said. “But after awhile, they said ‘Forget it, I’m going back into the Marine Corps.’ ”
After concluding her future wasn’t in retail, she made a decision many new veterans are making: “I finally decided I was going back to school,” she said.
“This past summer, I changed my major to organizational communications and will graduate in May. I’m applying to go right into the public administration master’s program here. My ultimate goal is to help veterans, in some capacity, in the VA system.”
Former Marine Lance Cpl. Luke Pontillo had already decided to enroll at UNM when he left the Corps in 2011, after spending four years as a stateside bulk fuels specialist.
Knowing that leaving the military would thrust him into a dismal employment picture, Pontillo set his sights on getting an education first and worrying about a career later.
Though the Post-9/11 GI Bill pays tuition, helps pay for textbooks and gives students a housing allowance, Pontillo said it’s still difficult to make ends meet without additional income, which means finding a part-time job. And those, he said, are nearly nonexistent.
He’s shooting for a master’s degree in psychology.
“My career goal is to go back to one of the bases and be a clinical psychologist for the guys who are still in” the military, he said.
With the job situation bleak for healthy veterans, it’s especially dismal for those dealing with the signature injuries of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.
A Department of Veterans Affairs report released Oct. 21 says that, since 9/11, nearly 30 percent of the 834,463 Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans treated at VA facilities have been diagnosed with PTSD. The VA maintains the overall PTSD rate is about 20 percent, based on the full population of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans instead of just those who have visited VA facilities.
Among those statistics is UNM history major Roy Huddleston, who says the PTSD for which he was belatedly diagnosed has made it nearly impossible for him to hold a steady job since his medical discharge in 2005.
Huddleston, 43, said he’s had at least six jobs in seven years, interspersed with long periods of unemployment. His fallback has been his disability payments.
“I had a job through a temp agency in Huntsville, Ala., that lasted about two weeks,” Huddleston said. He was fired from that job for “blowing up” at a supervisor, he said, a pattern that has repeated itself several times.
“For the most part, I’d get in an argument with a supervisor. Sometimes, my PTSD would get bad, so I’d call in (sick),” he said. “When my PTSD flares, it usually takes two or three days to subside enough for me to function.”
Supervisors and co-workers, he said, interpreted his absences as laziness.
Now that he’s getting treatment, Huddleston says he hopes to eventually teach history to Native American high-schoolers.
Jack Hill III, Odetha Hill’s husband, has, at least until the economy turns around, given up looking for work.
“People like me, people who have quit looking for work, we’re not in the jobless reports, but we should be,” Hill said.
Hill left the Navy in 2007, several years after a life-changing accident. While welding on an aircraft carrier, a 75-pound welder fell on his head, smashing his hard hat and causing a traumatic brain injury, which eventually led to a 100 percent disability rating.
“I’m on medications for the rest of my life, and I carry break-through medication in my rucksack at all times” in case of seizures, he said.
He worked briefly in the Norfolk shipyards after leaving the Navy but moved to New Mexico with his wife to care for her mother. With jobs scarce here, and lingering effects from the welding accident, Hill threw in the towel on a job search.
“I became a stay-at-home dad. I was with my son from the day he was born until he was 22 months old,” Hill said. “Then I went back to school.”
He enrolled in a gunsmithing school in Colorado, which required him to be away from home for 14 months, except on weekends. He’s now planning on opening a gun shop with a friend.
Despite the disability payments, joblessness has strained the family’s finances.
“There’s no wiggle room,” he said. “We’re able to pay our bills, but that’s about it.”
While economists see encouraging, if uneven, signs of an economic rebound, many new veterans are gambling that the new skills and degrees they are seeking now will pay dividends down the road.
The competition for those hoped-for jobs is likely to be as stiff as the crease on their old uniforms: The Department of Defense, facing its own massive budget cuts as it withdraws from a decade of Middle East conflicts, estimates that about 307,000 service members will leave the military annually over the next four years.
Huddleston, for one, is worried about that influx of new job-seekers.
“The last time I went to look for a job, I put in an application at a Taco Bell right up the street from where I live,” he said.
The two applicants ahead of him, he said, had advanced degrees.
“So how are you going to compete with that?” he said.
Top 10 reasons for hiring veterans:
- Leadership — Veterans are trained to be leaders and managers.
- Professionalism — Veterans know the importance of integrity and respect — respect that gives your team a winning edge.
- Responsibility — Veterans know what it means to be accountable for valuable human and material resources.
- Mission-Critical Skills — Veterans undergo trade-related and technical training that often relates directly to civilian jobs.
- Physical Conditioning — Veterans know the value of being in top physical condition and drug-free.
- Can-Do Attitude — Veterans carry and apply a positive attitude to get the job done.
- Adaptability — Veterans are steady, cool and collected. Handling stress is all in a day’s work for veterans.
- First-Class Image — Whether in uniform or a business suit, veterans know how to dress for success.
- On Time, All the Time — Veterans know that every second counts and will be there on time.
- Global Perspective — Veterans are tuned in to the forces and events that shape the global market.
Source: N.M. Department of Workforce Solutions
Resources for job-hunting veterans
The New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions has veteran employment representatives throughout the state to assist veterans and disabled veterans looking for jobs. Visit the website and click on the “Veteran” tab. www.dws.state.nm.us
VA for Vets facilitates the reintegration, retention and hiring of veteran employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The program offers career-search tools for veterans seeking employment at VA, career development services for veterans, and coaching and reintegration support for military service members. www.vaforvets.va.gov
In May, the VA launched the Veteran Retraining Assistance Program, which allows qualifying veterans between the ages of 35 and 60 to receive up to 12 months of educational assistance. The goal of the program is to train 99,000 veterans for high-demand jobs over the next two years.
VetSuccess.gov is a virtual employment resource center developed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Service. The website presents information about VR&E’s “Five Tracks to Employment” program, serves as a resource for veterans seeking employment and assists employers who want to hire veterans. VetSuccess also features information about the vocational counseling services available to active duty personnel and veterans who have recently separated from military service. www.vetsuccess.gov
Information on tax credits and other incentives for employers to hire and train veterans who are unemployed or have service-connected disabilities is available at http://benefits.va.gov/vow/foremployers.htm
Federal and state tax credits available to employers who hire qualifying veterans
The federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit is based on qualified wages paid to employee for the first year of employment, and the number of hours worked. The credit is 25 percent for veterans employed at least 120 hours, and 40 percent for veterans employed for 400 hours or more. Various wage caps, ranging from $6,000 to $24,000, apply.
For more information on the WOTC, visit www.doleta.gov/wotc or call Hector Moreu, state coordinator for the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions WOTC program, at 505-841-8501.
The state of New Mexico’s Veteran Employment Tax Credit will provide up to $1,000 to businesses each time they hire a recently discharged veteran.
For more information, visit he New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions website at www.state.nm.us and click on the “Veterans” tab, or call 505-827-6811.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal