The unemployment rate for members of the U.S. National Guard and military Reserve returning from deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan is much higher than the jobless rate among U.S. veterans overall, according to the military and veterans’ advocacy groups.
The National Guard has been reporting jobless rates as high as 50 percent among its units returning from the recent overseas wars, compared with an unemployment rate of 8.3 per cent for all military veterans.
The U.S. military has been studying the problem for months but says it only recently began to identify some of the reasons behind the high jobless rates among members of the Guard and Reserve.
Major Pam Ellison of the U.S. Army National Guard sits on a White House task force to combat the high jobless rates among Guard and Reserve units returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
She says the problem was initially off the military’s radar because employment among members of the Guard and Reserve was viewed as something that falls into the civilian sector.
“We don’t have our arms wrapped around it,” she said. “We are now starting to measure things. We are now starting to get ahead of the units deploying so we can query them. ‘Are you unemployed now? Did you come to us with a job and are you going to go back to your job?’”
America’s Citizen Soldiers
The Guard and Reserve are also known as America’s “citizen soldiers” because they rely on part-time troops who go on military deployments while maintaining their civilian lives and jobs.
U.S. law requires employers to hold a job for a Guard member or Reservist while they are deployed but many simply had no civilian jobs to go back to before they went overseas.
Lieutenant Colonel Steven Lelbach of the U.S. Army Reserve was among the troops who returned from Iraq only to face another battle at home: unemployment.
Lelbach started looking for work while still in Iraq but since his return to the U.S. in July, the divorced father of four children has had just one face-to-face interview.
“I really never believed that I would be this long without employment. The money is about gone. Next month my rent is dependent on me getting my federal tax returns. And then there’s no money left,” he said.
The Guard and Reserve say jobless rates among returning troops may be high because their soldiers don’t always have full access to the education, training and job placement programs that are available for full-time active duty veterans.
Some Guardsmen and Reservists say recruiters draw heavily from rural areas with traditionally higher unemployment rates and that employers are hesitant to hire them if they might be deployed yet again.
Daniel Elkins of the Veterans of Foreign Wars says the high jobless rates among America’s “citizen soldiers” could reduce their military readiness.
“When you have 30, 40, 50 percent unemployment rate among your soldiers and sailors, that drastically will impact your readiness level as well as your level of morale,” he says. “It needs to be addressed before we enter into that crisis.”
The Department of Defense is now considering several plans to help Guard and Reserve veterans find work including making employment training programs mandatory for troops transitioning back to civilian life.
But for Steven Lelbach and the other thousands of returning members of the Guard and Reserve who served in Iraq and Afghanistan that help may not be enough.
Lelbach has vacated his Virginia rental home where he had lived for nearly a decade and is bracing for what he calls “rock bottom”.
“It’s just been really, really tough to keep and maintain a focus where you don’t lose your own self-respect,” he says.