McClatchy Newspapers: Bipartisan bill seeks to help veterans find employment

WASHINGTON -- With more than one in five veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan unemployed, both of Alaska's senators joined Sen. Patty Murray in introducing legislation Tuesday that would provide expanded training, job placement and small business assistance to them, calling the current situation unacceptable.

"It really makes you ask how this can be, how these heroes ... struggle so much when they come home," said Murray, D-Wash., adding that existing programs offered by the Veterans Affairs Department and the Defense Department were inadequate.

The legislation has bipartisan support. Among the co-sponsors are Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, along with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska.

"This bill will help our veterans gain the additional skills they need to participate in Alaska's oil and gas industry," Murkowksi said. "It will provide them the opportunity to start their own businesses, if they choose to. And it encourages employers at all levels to recognize that those who've given much in the service of their country have much to offer to a prospective employer."

Murray said the price tag of her legislation has yet to be determined by the Congressional Budget Office.

The effort comes as the employment training center for the 6,200 members of the Washington National Guard is trying to handle requests from 1,500 soldiers who need jobs.

"These are citizen soldiers from every county in the state," said Morgan Zantua, an employment transition coach with the Guard at Camp Murray. "Everyone is having a hard time."

The Washington National Guard's 81st Heavy Brigade Combat Team has deployed twice to Iraq.

Murray's bill is aimed at helping regular Army veterans as well as Guard members.

The problem of unemployed young vets has only grown worse, even as the recession eases. The Labor Department said the unemployment rate for veterans ages 18 to 24 was 21.1 percent in 2009, up from 14.1 percent a year earlier.

The unemployment rate for non-veteran 18- to 24-year-olds was 16.6 percent.

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, more than 1.9 million members of the military have deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. As they return, many are struggling with injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues, homelessness and alcohol and drug addictions. Unemployment can compound those problems.

"I applied for every job I could find and sent out hundreds of resumes," said Jason Hansman, a veteran of the Iraq war from Seattle. "I couldn't even get an interview."

Hansman, who appeared with Murray at a news conference, said that despite having a degree from the University of Washington and overseeing hundreds of reconstruction projects in Iraq, the only job he could find was as a night-shift security officer. He took the job, but eventually found work with a veterans group.

Murray, along with Begich and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, said Hansman's story was typical of what they are hearing from veterans.

"This is flat-out unacceptable," Murray said.

"When they signed up to serve," Klobuchar said, "there wasn't a waiting line, but they are now standing in line waiting for a job or health care or other services."

Begich agreed.

"After the initial excitement of coming home, the reality of the challenges they face set in," he said. "They need to know the government is there for them."

Among other things, Murray's bill would:

• Expand the post-9/11 GI bill to allow veterans to use benefits not only for college, but for apprenticeship and worker training programs.

• Establish a Veterans Business Center Program within the Small Business Administration to help veterans forming their own businesses.

• Create pilot programs to help veterans build on the technical skills they learned in the military and market those skills in the civilian workforce.

• Create a Veterans Conservation Corps, modeled on the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, which built projects throughout the country.

• Require a study that could lead to the expansion of the National Guard Employment Enhancement Project, which provides transition assistance to National Guard members.

"We can't continue to pat veterans on the back for their service and then push them into the job market alone," Murray said.

By:  By Les Blumenthal. Originally published April 21, 2010
Source: JOBLESS: Returnees have rate over 21 percent which compounds other problems.