November 11 is Veteran's Day in the United States, when Americans honor all those who have returned from service in their nation's military. Going to war is difficult under any circumstance. But for veterans returning home, rejoining society as civilians poses its own challenges, especially in the economic sphere.
Finding work is one of the greatest difficulties faced by veterans now returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Allen Pittman, Assistant Secretary for Human Resources at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, says over 197,000 men and women separated from military service last year and over a third of the youngest veterans who returned home last year were unemployed. The nation, he says, needs to help.
"The citizens of the U.S. really need to show and express their appreciation for the constitutional rights that are made possible through our veterans and their families," Mr. Pittman says. "It's really the mission to care for those who have borne the battle, the spouses and their children."
Over 80 American companies and organizations -- from General Motors to Starbucks and the New York City Fire Department -- recently showed their appreciation by sending representatives to the "Salute Our Heroes Veterans Job Fair and Career Expo" in New York City.
For many of the thousands of veterans at this job fair, a popular destination is the booth for ESPN, the sports media network. That's where Navy veteran Dan Manning is thinking about his comrades in Iraq while waiting to hand in a job application. "I feel their pain," he says, "and I support their being over there. The reason for them being over there I'm not clear on, but I could understand they've got a job to do and they must fulfill their duty. So I respect that." He says he wants Americans to "understand that veterans have served this country. When we sign on that dotted line, we put our lives on the line. That's what our job is."
When asked to explain why he is on line at for an ESPN job, he grins "Why not? I am a big sports fan, I talk quite well. I verbalize. So this is the place that might hire me and let me continue on in my pursuit of the American dream."
Guy Holliday, Vice President, Advertising Sales at the New York Times, which sponsored the fair, returned from Iraq in 2003, where he served in the Reserves. Mr. Holliday says vets often make better employees than non-vets.
"The most important thing is we know how to lead soldiers. We know how to lead people and we know how to take care of people." Also, he says, soldiers know how to adapt. "The civilian world is changing so fast, the pace of work… is changing so fast, you've got to have people who can change fast too. [And] who knows better how to do that than a soldier?"
Enlistees often gain valuable skills in the military. A young man named Paul is waiting to speak to a recruiter at a jobs booth run by a large construction firm. He will soon be discharged after two tours of duty with a Marine Corps engineering unit in Iraq. He says he saw the hardhats and construction equipment on display "and I said to myself 'you know what? I was around that a lot. It feels familiar.' It's kind of a way of helping me transition out of the military into a job that is in the civilian world that is similar to what I did in the Marine Corps." When asked if he expects life to be smooth when he becomes a civilian, he shot back "I'm not going to lie. It's hard to adjust from being in a regimented lifestyle to becoming a civilian and you have a lot of freedoms. It takes time. But with patience you'll get through it and I see that I might live a very good life after this."
Disabled veterans often face harder challenges. Robert Loria was serving with the Army in Iraq in February of last year when a roadside bomb exploded. "I lost my left hand," he says. "And I had a compound fracture of my left femur [and] I lost the use of my left foot. I have shrapnel all up and down my side." Still, he wants to find a job at the fair. "I am going to school, I'm doing college," he explains, "… but I can't do 40 years of it. So hopefully I come here, I'll find something I like, and I'll go with it."
This job fair, which is closed to the general public, is open to the family members of service personnel, who can also be deeply affected, both financially and emotionally, by a loved one's military service.
"I tell everybody that I also 'signed on the dotted line,'" says Mildred, an Army wife. "A lot of people feel the soldier is the one doing the military work, that the family is not affected by it. And that's not so. We also have to deal with the deployment, the adjusting [and] the readjusting, when they come home. So we also are in the military."
The Veterans Job Fair in New York is not unique. Similar events are held in cities across the United States from Anchorage, Alaska, to Jacksonville, Florida.