January 9, 2008
Editor’s Note: Tens of thousands of members of the National Guard and reserves who are called up to serve in Iraq return home to find their civilian jobs gone and face unsympathetic employers.
When reservist U.S. Army Maj. Phillip Davis left his job as a dispatcher for a national trucking company a year ago because he was called up to fight the war in Iraq he received an unexpected going away present. His employer promptly hired someone to replace him within days of his deployment.
Davis of Victorville is not alone. For tens of thousands of members of the National Guard and reserves who are called up to serve in Iraq, returning home safely may be just the beginning – not the end – of a long road back. Reservists lucky enough to return home often find their civilian jobs gone and face unsympathetic employers and recruiters fixated on offering incentives and huge bonuses to keep them fighting.
Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 nearly 9,376 veterans have lost their jobs in both the private and public sectors while serving a tour of duty, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Those numbers are expected to skyrocket as more and more soldiers are returning home as multiple deployments to war takes its toll on them and their families.
While Davis received his pink slip days before he was deployed, veterans advocacy groups charge thousands of veterans have lost their full-time jobs since the war began and say the Labor Department is not doing enough to stem the flow of “pink”.
“We did our job,” says Davis who says he had to live with the uncertainty about his family’s welfare all the time he was risking his life in Iraq. A week before Christmas Davis and his wife Denise sat in their Riverside home pondering a new stack of coming home presents: job rejection letters.
“How do you explain to a potential employer you spent the last year detonating roadside bombs?” said Davis.
The Uniform Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) protects members of the guard and reserves from job loss, demotion, loss of seniority and loss of benefits when they are called to duty.
The act is supposed to protect reservists’ civilian jobs for up to five years of military service. But according to Davis wading through government bureaucracy to enforce his legal right is emotionally and physically draining and is discouraging many vets from filing formal complaints.
More than 16,000 reservist complaints were filed between 2004 and 2006, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Fewer than 30 percent of the reservists who experience USERRA violations file complaints.
Reservist Leslie Anderson returned to Moreno Valley from a second tour in Iraq in October only to find her job as a buyer for a retail chain “phased out”.
Anderson, who is completing an MBA, is understandably frustrated. Status of Forces Surveys and reemployment records once available to the public, have been designated “for officials use only”. Critics charge the Defense Department policy keeps reservists’ reemployment problems secret.
Anderson was responsible for getting supplies to troops sent to Iraq and Afghanistan. Her job meant negotiating contracts with suppliers and contractors for food, clothing, weapons, and anything else troops needed in the field.
Filing a complaint with the Veteran Employment and Training Service Department (VETS), by the military’s own admission, can take months, if not years.
After weeks of sending out applications and interviews, Anderson who is African-American took a job cataloging manuscripts at a local library. “I took the job out of desperation. I have a five year old, we have to eat.”
The ‘war on terror’ generation has become the forgotten generation,” says Paul Epps, a Victorville-based executive job search counselor who specializes in placing returning vets.
“The military spends over 800 million in advertising on the recruitment of volunteers into the services. Congress just approved $70 billion to fund the war yet, little or no dollars are spent to create full time jobs and resources for returning vets,” he says.
Veterans have to overcome perceptions from employers who see a former artillery or infantry officer trained to kill or blow things up, but don’t see that they have “enhanced skills in motivating others, managing personnel, negotiating and leadership skills,” says Weems.
It’s pathetic when you have a highly skilled college graduate reduced to doing menial labor. Soldiers don’t stop learning once they are deployed. He says job prospects for many African-Americans, Latinos and other minorities without college or funds to hire headhunters is bleak thanks to a growing pool of unsympathetic ‘post affirmative action’ employers.
Before California voters outlawed affirmative action and before the era of online job searching, Weems says he could count on big and small employers to hire returning vets.
“I’d get on the phone and say Joe is a skilled artillery officer with a wife and three kids he needs a job. Employers would regularly assess their workforce. Some would create new positions. Minority vets were often given priority, these days the jobs battleground is located on the Internet at sites like Monster.com. It’s an e-mail world out there I’m lucky to get a personal return phone call,” he says.
Veterans may apply for unemployment benefits the same way a worker at a civilian job may if they lose their job, depending on each state’s rules. But those benefits last only so long, meaning veterans often are taking jobs for which they are overqualified because of difficulty getting their foot in the door.
“I’m smart, hardworking and disciplined,” says Anderson “Everyone talks about supporting the troops – yet thousands of us are jobless and desperate – it’s a bit hypocritical.”
“It’s not an issue of giving vets a job but giving them a chance to compete,” says Davis “It’s hard to swallow the thought that the government which sends us to war may have little use for us when we return home.”