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Combat Veterans Search for Civilian Careers


Some members of the U.S. military are finding the transition back to the civilian workforce difficult after a combat deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. Even though certain laws protect jobs held by National Guardsmen and reservists while serving on active duty, the number of unemployed veterans is growing -- and many are unable to find jobs despite having valuable skills. VOA's Kane Farabaugh visited the "Salute our Heroes" job fair for veterans sponsored by the New York Times Group.

Lee French is 24 years old. He has a degree from Carnegie Mellon University and he is also a military veteran who served in Kuwait during the current war in Iraq. There he managed a shipping port and supervised an international staff of 60.

Today, he's unemployed, and frustrated.

"I interviewed with a shipping company, and they saw my resume on-line and e-mailed me and asked me to come in. And once I showed up, I guess the guy was surprised that I was so young. He told me he would call me back, but I haven't heard from him since," said French.

Michael Ortiz has a degree from New York's Hunter College. He is also a decorated war veteran, serving as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army National Guard with a transportation unit deployed to Iraq. He had a job at his alma mater, Hunter College, before he went to the war, and thought he had it when he came back.

That wasn't necessarily the case.

"So I go back to work in January of '06,” he said, “one, to find out that I was given a job, but I wasn't in the same status, and two, to find out that the job itself was ending because it was a grant-funded program, and that grant was unfortunately de-funded."

Michael Ortiz and Lee French are two of the thousands of job seekers who attended the "Salute our Heroes" job fair at New York's Convention Center. As the war continues, more and more people like Ortiz and French are returning to the United States as combat veterans. Their stories echo the frustrations many veterans face. Some employers would rather take practical experience over military qualifications and education. Others aren't keeping jobs for their deployed employees, or reduce their position upon their return.

Solomon Watson, chief legal officer for the New York Times Group, says that is part of his group's motivation in hosting job fairs across the country, exclusively for veterans. "In large measure, while we are gaining some revenue and profit from this, we are motivated by helping get jobs for people -- servicemen and servicewomen -- who are looking for jobs, by bringing together employers and agencies who are looking for well qualified people."

One of those agencies is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, where most of the astronaut corps is either veterans or current members of the military.

Coast Guard Captain Daniel Burbank, an astronaut, said, "There's a lot of technology that veterans get an opportunity to work with and they've got a lot of talents in that area, and it's the same kind of technology -- aerospace technology for example -- that we use on a regular basis at NASA. Whether it be robotics, or the work with aerial vehicles and those things like that, that has direct application to what NASA does."

Stella Okigbo, who is from Nigeria, joined the U.S. military to say, “thank you” to the country that gave her citizenship. Now back from Iraq, she has a job waiting for her once she finishes active duty but is here looking for work for her friends in uniform.

"Some of my fellow soldiers couldn't even make it out here,” she said, “so I decided I'll come out here to look out for things for them get things for them, and to tell them what's out there so that they could make a smooth transition to a civilian job if they don't have one."

Michael Ortiz walks the hall knowing that he has a limited amount of time to find a new job. And even though his wife hasn't worked in five years, she is also looking for work to help pay the bills that comes with a house and children.

Despite the hardship, Ortiz takes his situation in stride. "There are veterans that are unemployed, there are veterans that are homeless. That's the group that we seriously got to think about and I think help. If I'm taking advantage of this, it's because it's here, but I don't think my story is unique at all."

As Lee French stops by the dozens of booths looking for work, he has all but given up hope of finding a job in the shipping industry, despite his military experience. "I'm just looking for an entry level position, something to get my foot in the door at a printed media or production company."

French is part of a growing demographic among veterans. In 2005, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that Gulf War veterans between the ages of 18-24 years of age had an unemployment rate of 18.7 percent -- compared to 10.4 percent for non-veterans in that age group. The unemployment rate for all veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces was 3.9 percent, lower than the national rate of 4.4 percent.

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