They fought for their country in Iraq. Now veterans are struggling to find a decent job in the United States.

Pittsburgh post-gazette

They fought for their country in Iraq. Now veterans are struggling to find a decent job in the United States.

The war at home

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Jaquaie McAtee of East Liberty, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, walks by a mural of Anthony Smith, a former Peabody High School classmate and friend, at North Winebiddle Street and Penn Avenue in Garfield. Smith was shot to death in January 2004.

Text by Moustafa Ayad ~ Photographs by Martha Rial

A year ago, former Sgt. Jaquaie McAtee was in charge of the most sought-after service in Iraq.

McAtee, a mine expert, was responsible for locating and detonating the most effective weapon in the arsenal of the metastasizing insurgency — improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

Courtesy of McAtee
Jaquaie McAtee brushes his teeth while serving in Iraq.
Click photo for larger image. After three tours of duty, two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, McAtee returned from battle as one of the most competent men in his field, working against the roadside bombings that take so many soldiers’ lives. He led 12-man teams into the fray of Fallujah at the height of the coalition’s mission to rid the town of rebels, yet has come home to the stigma of being unable to hold a job as simple as herding crowds of raucous Steelers fans through the gates of Heinz Field.

“We left with nothing, and we came back to nothing,” said McAtee, a 23-year-old veteran who lives in East Liberty. He has fought two wars in two countries and now struggles on the front lines of the job market, fighting unsuccessfully for work.

He’s not alone. Soldiers in his age group have the highest unemployment rate in the country, which both surprises and frustrates him. “What else do I have to prove to my country? Do I have to get shot to get a job?”

One thousand active-duty, reserve and National Guard servicemen come home every day to the possibility of unemployment lines. Despite six or more federal vocational and hiring initiatives available to servicemen, many soldiers such as McAtee have scant knowledge about the $222.5 million worth of services designed to help them.

McAtee gets a trim from Bill Barber at Eastland Hair Lines in Garfield.
Click photo for larger image. “It’s unfortunate,” said Charles Sheehan-Miles, executive director for Veterans for Common Sense, a Washington, D.C., organization working to provide public affairs scholarships for returning veterans. “Once upon a time, people believed they could get past the average blue-collar jobs by enlisting in the military and returning with what was considered an experience equivalent to a college degree. It’s sad, but that’s not the case anymore.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while the national unemployment average hovers around 5 percent, McAtee and 20- to 24-year-old African-American veterans like him have the highest unemployment rate in the country — 29 percent or more.

“Many of the first-term enlistees are entering the job market for the first time, maybe going to school or taking some well-deserved time off, and that isn’t always reflected in the unemployment numbers,” said John Muckelbauer, executive assistant of the Veterans’ Employment and Training Services Office in the Department of Labor. “These veterans are making a new entrance into the job market. A more accurate comparison for many of the 20- to 24-year-old veterans would be 18- and 19-year-olds not enrolled in college.”

Historically, veterans have better employment statistics than nonveterans. While the 2004 unemployment rate for the civilian population is 5 percent, it drops to 4.6 percent for veterans of all races.

But that’s not much consolation for men like McAtee, who works odd part-time jobs to pay the bills — for his Section 8 apartment, car, college.

He grew up watching people in the streets of Garfield hustle to make a dollar. Raised against the backdrop of street violence, McAtee envisioned an escape from the dismal conditions — the Marine Corps.

His father and uncles were Marines. In high school, while friends dabbled in drugs and gangs, McAtee was playing sports. Whether it was basketball, baseball, volleyball or football season, McAtee participated. His mother figured that with school and organized sports little else could lead him astray.

Jaquaie McAtee, left, and childhood friend Lucas Cope — both Operation Iraqi Freedom Marine veterans — look at McAtee’s dress blues at his grandparents’ home in Lincoln-Lemington. McAtee and Cope have struggled to find decent-paying jobs since leaving the military and returning to the United States.
Click photo for larger image. McAtee’s story runs parallel to that of Pvt. Lucas Cope. Cope and McAtee shared a neighborhood. They went to Peabody High School and played on the drum line. Cope joined the Marines after seeing McAtee return in his pristine dress blues.

Now Cope, who returned from Iraq after serving a seven-month tour driving trucks in highly vulnerable convoys, is struggling along with McAtee to find work that’s fitting for a Marine with combat experience.

“Being a grunt you are trained to do one thing — kill people,” said Larry Tritle, a Vietnam veteran and professor of ancient history at Loyola/Marymount University in Los Angeles. “The skills you learn are simply not transferable into the overcrowded and competitive job market. Kids coming out of the military are not in a good situation. It all harks back to Vietnam, the things we are talking about– it’s deja vu.”

Both McAtee and Cope are struggling in the pursuit of job opportunities that might pay even half of the $30,000-a-year salaries they earned in the military.

“I’m not looking for a handout,” said Cope, who is working the night shift for a janitorial service earning $9.50 an hour. “But, I didn’t think I’d be struggling like this. I never thought you could be [in Iraq] struggling to survive and then be back here struggling, too.”

Muckelbauer says former servicemen as a whole fare better than the experiences of McAtee and Cope might suggest.

“When we do real apples-to-apples comparisons, we do seem to find that veterans across the board tend to do better than nonveterans,” said Muckelbauer. “The data show that the skills they leave the military with are technical skills and lots of soft skills, like how to manage people and handle stress situations.”

The Department of Labor, the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs run a series of programs that try to help veterans find stability after the military. Soldiers in the world’s most technologically advanced army go through $17 billion worth of training on the latest computer equipment. Translating those skills into the private sector is what these programs try to sell to potential employers.

Last year, President Bush formed the National Hire Veterans Committee, which launched the Hire Vets First initiative. That campaign, begun at a time when the country was seeing the effects of its first protracted war since Vietnam, was designed to address the needs of soldiers returning home after longer tours of duty.

Also of assistance is the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, which protects returning National Guardsmen or Reserves against employer discrimination in hiring and retention practices.

Pennsylvania has the third-highest rate of complaints filed under the legislation. During the past five years, National Guardsmen and Reserves returning to their jobs in Pennsylvania have filed more than 290 complaints against employers.

“Employers, in general, could not care less if you’ve served in the military,” said Sgt. Mark Hatfield, recruiter for the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. Hatfield fought in both the invasion of Panama and the first Gulf War, yet spent the better part of three years unemployed after his tours of duty.

McAtee, left, pauses to study the sky while walking up North Negley Avenue in East Liberty with his friend Lucas Cope.
Click photo for larger image. The best job Hatfield could land during that time was a $9-an-hour stint in the shipping and receiving department of a radiator company. “It’s like that across the board. It’s very sad, but that’s the society we live in.”

The Department of Defense recognized a need for serious workforce training programs in 1990. The Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines Corps began offering optional vocational training called Transition Assistance Programs, or TAPs. The program, usually administered to soldiers returning home after serving 180 days of duty, lasts about 2 1/2 days and covers job searches, employment assistance, resume writing, career counseling, networking, veterans’ benefits eligibility information, resource libraries and federal employment information.

McAtee and Cope went through TAP job training, but without the ability to get their feet in the door, it’s proved useless so far.

“You’re coming home to a harsh reality,” said Jason Brosk, a global war on terrorism outreach worker at the McKeesport Vet Center for the Department of Veterans Affairs. “I was 24 years old, in charge of 40 people and had three years of battlefield experience and pressure. I could probably do your job and seven others, but the responses I would get from employers was, ‘It never panned out.’ ”

For now, McAtee is on the front lines of a nursing home near his East Liberty apartment, and Cope is emptying trash bins and mopping floors in office buildings. The neighborhood they once shared is theirs again, as are the experiences that drew them to the military and the challenges they face now.

“I’m a Marine and he’s a Marine, and we’re in this together,” said McAtee. “We’re bros.”

McAtee’s formal Marine portrait is displayed with pictures of rappers at Eastland Hair Lines in Garfield. McAtee is a regular customer at the barber shop.

(Moustafa Ayad can be reached at or 412-263-1731.)

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