War is hell, but being young and unemployed is no fun either. American forces who survived their tours of duty in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere are returning home to a faltering economy, poor job prospects, questionable education and job-training opportunities and a nation that does not understand their needs.
The unemployment rate for veterans aged 20 to 24 has averaged 30 percent this year, more than double that of others the same age, though the rate for older veterans closely matches that of civilians.
The situation for reservists and those in the National Guard may be even worse, although exact figures are hard to come by. Federal law prohibits employers from discriminating against reservists and National Guard members but enforcement is less than poor.
No one seems to know quite why veterans are having a harder time finding a job than civilians with similar educations. Most employers say they prefer veterans because they are highly disciplined and more likely to take their work seriously, but those kind words don't often translate into employment.
Part of the problem, many veterans say, is that the transition from day-to-day life in Iraq or Afghanistan to Main Steet USA is simply so jarrging that returning military personnel are in a state of virtual shell shock, unable to easily switch from worrying about roadside bombs to keeping track of the Starbucks flavor of the month, the latest Twitter jargon or shopping app.
Aggravating the situation, says a group called Ohio Combat Veterans, is that so few Americans today have served in the military.
"Ninety-nine percent of Americans have not served in the military. That means veterans make up less than 1 percent of the population," the group says on its Web site. "Yet 25% of the nation's homeless are veterans."
"It’s shell shock for a lot of them, going from such a structured lifestyle to a lifestyle that’s got so many variables,” said group founder Daniel Hutchison, 29, in a New York Times story today. “They’re dealing with all the emotional things they went through, and they feel like they’re alone.”
Hutchison was so affected by the difficulties and roadblocks he and his returning comrades faced that he uses his combat disability check to cover the start-up costs of his group, which tries to ease the transition and find jobs for returning War on Terror veterans.
Besides volunteer groups like Hutchison's, there are any number of official government and industry-sponsored jobs programs for veterans, including:
Many veterans, however, have trouble navigating the bureaucracy and red tape that accompany government programs, partly because of the after-effects of their combat service.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, notes Hutchison, more than 40,000 troops have been physically wounded. The estimates are that over 300,000 will suffer from PTSD or Traumatic Brain Injury, severely complicating the return to civilian life.
Besides facing the challenge of finding, or returning to, a job, veterans face numerous financial risks and are often targeted by unscrupulous businesses, including payday loan providers and shady car dealers.
Supposedly reputable businesses have also taken advantage of veterans, sometimes through ignorance of the legal protections afforded to veterans, other times simply because they can get away with it.
The Soldiers and Sailors Credit Relief Act limits the interest rates that can be charged on mortgages, credit cards, auto loans and other debts when military personnel are called to active duty. But it is routinely ignored and prosecution of violators is almost unheard of.
In April, JPMorganChase agreed to pay $56 million to settle claims it overcharged service members for their mortgages. The case came about only through the action of U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Jonathon Rowles, whose South Carolina home was foreclosed on by Chase while he was flying military missions over South Korea.
Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo, Countrywide and other large financial institutions were also investigated and, in some cases, paid penalties and refunds but most cases go unprosecuted and, once the highly-publicized cases are settled, Congress gets back to its primary task of assuaging large contributors.
So severe was the damage being done to active-duty military by predatory payday loans that in 2005, the Defense Department determined they were affecting military readiness.
Mild reforms were instituted after the dust-up but as ConsumerAffairs.com reported in July, big banks, unable to pass up iinterest rates averaging 365 percent, are now wading into the payday loan business as alleged government regulators stand meekly by.
Nothing better typifies the shabby treatment afforded returning military than the for-profit colleges and vocational training institutes that have sprouted like weeds over the last decade.
“The price tag for these colleges is so high that about half of all borrowers who default on their student loans attend for-profit colleges,” the consumer group USPIRG said earlier this year. “The quality of the education is so weak that, in one survey, 57 percent of students departed without a diploma.”
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) went on the offensive against for-profit schools and browbeat the U.S. Education Department into adopting tougher standards but many military veterans say they have wasted their education benefits on degrees and certificates that turned out to be worthless.
"If I decide to change schools, none of the credits I received from [University of] Phoenix will be accepted, and this is where Phoenix gets to keep veterans on their books in order to receive more money, because we are veterans," said Timothy of Frankfurt, Ky., earlier this month. "This is a sham, and a poor excuse for a higher education facility."
In his efforts to rein in for-profit schools, Harkin has noted that -- among their other drawbacks -- for-profit schools are far more expensive than comparable programs at community colleges or public universities. The average tuition for a for-profit school is about six times higher than a community college and twice as high as a 4-year public school.
Strangers at home
Of course, none of this harrumphing and listing of outrages does much to help individual veterans. As in nearly every other sorry situation of corruption and neglect, government agencies and a Congress that is almost totally removed from reality simply don't provide the feet on the street that are needed to deal with each and every individual veteran who needs -- and deserves -- a grateful nation's help.
Grassroots self-help organizations like Hutchison's are the most likely to provide the understanding and unstinting 24/7 dedication that can eventually help heal those wounded by war and its aftermath. The need is great -- and urgent. If you know of organizations worthy of public support, please tell us about them. Email email@example.com.
"The saddest statistic tells a terrible story," Hutchison said. "On average, 18 American veterans commit suicide -- every single day."
War is hell, but being young and unemployed is no fun either. American forces who survived their tours of duty in Iraq and returning home to a faltering ec...