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Despite Low Unemployment, Veterans Struggle To Find Meaningful Jobs


The most recent generation of war veterans came home to a pretty rough economy. Joblessness for younger veterans back in 2011 was more than 12 percent, much worse than the rate for nonveterans. That number is now down to below 6 percent, and last year was the best year on record for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans' unemployment. But what that figure doesn't show is the quality of that employment. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports on why after the military just any job won't do.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Crossing guard is not a job you would think requires counterinsurgency experience.

RUTH THOMAS: We had people that was at the end that was going up and down the alleys to make sure they're clear.

LAWRENCE: Ruth Thomas is walking what's called a safe passage for elementary school kids in uptown Chicago. She works with a group called No Veteran Left Behind which guards kids as they cross gang territory.

THOMAS: If there's any craziness that's going to go down, it's going to go down over there. No vehicles can come through there. It's like a big park area.

LAWRENCE: Thomas did two tours in Iraq. She's not easily intimidated, and her goals are realistic.

THOMAS: Now, I have spoken to maybe two or three of the guys that was doing - were selling the drugs. I'm not here to deter you from doing your business. That's not what we're here for. We're here to make sure these kids get back and forth to school safely. So can you like cut that out until our shift is over? And they did.

LAWRENCE: Some of the vets here are older, retired or disabled and doing this job part-time as a way to stay connected. A huge 61-year-old Marine, Bennie Reed - the kids treat him like an extra grandpa.

BENNIE REED: I talk to them, you know, and, you know, the parents know me real good. And I say, any problem, anybody mess with you, run to me. If I can't handle them, I'll call the police.

LAWRENCE: Do you think - is it important to them that you're a Marine?

REED: No, not really, no. I'm just here to protect them and look out for them. That's all they care about.

LAWRENCE: The kids aren't really the focus. Eli Williamson, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, started No Veteran Left Behind to help vets with student loan debt.

ELI WILLIAMSON: And what we realized is that most of these veterans either found themselves unemployed or underemployed - underemployed being the worst.

LAWRENCE: The government doesn't measure underemployment because it's hard to define. One study did find that 43 percent of veterans leave their first civilian job within 12 months. Williamson knows veterans' unemployment is at a historic low, and plenty of companies advertise that they hire vets. But too many of those are dead-end jobs, he says, that don't leave time to look for a better one.

WILLIAMSON: At one point in time, people in business and government had military experience.

LAWRENCE: But now it's only a tiny percentage who served, so a tiny number who know that a corpsman has a lot of medical knowledge or a quartermaster knows about logistics.

WILLIAMSON: What happens is that not only are civilians not really aware of how these skills relate but you have veterans who also don't know how to articulate those skills either in a way that civilians can understand.

LAWRENCE: Williamson's goal is to get veterans a transitional job while they learn to translate their military specialty for civilians. He says civilians need to be meeting them halfway, though.

WILLIAMSON: There's no excuse to not have a basic understanding about how our military works when your tax dollars pay for this stuff. I will call it citizenship malpractice.

LAWRENCE: Considering the hundreds of thousands of dollars it takes to train a soldier, Williamson says America should be trying to get something back on its investment by making use of the skills that veterans bring to the table. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly refer to the organization Leave No Veteran Behind as No Veteran Left Behind.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.