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Minnesota National Guard
Returning vets need jobs, and jobs don't come easily

By Mark Fischenich The Free Press
August 25, 2011
MANKATO — Americans have been appreciative of veterans of recent wars — offering bumper stickers of support, care packages to troops in war zones, better benefits through their state and federal governments, and warm welcome-home events for returning soldiers

But, according to a group of nine veterans advocates in Mankato Thursday, one thing isn’t being offered often enough to many young veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: A job when they come home

Sgt. 1st Class Stephen Whitehead, a regional coordinator for the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon program, said it hasn’t been easy translating general public support for veterans into job opportunities

“The employers are not opening the door as easily as we’d hope,” Whitehead told Congressman Tim Walz during a meeting on the issue at the Wagon Wheel Cafe

Unemployment statistics tell a complicated story Overall, including veterans of previous wars, the unemployment rate for veterans is lower than for the general population A congressional study completed in May showed an 85 percent unemployment rate for the nonveteran population and a 77 percent jobless rate for all veterans

For recent veterans, the numbers change Post 9/11 veterans were facing a 109 percent unemployment rate

The really rough unemployment numbers come when looking at Iraq and Afghanistan veterans between the ages of 18 and 24 — nearly 20 percent, according to a June Senate report And Minnesota had the third highest jobless rate in the nation for that category of veterans — just under 23 percent

Whitehead said some of that number reflects recently discharged veterans collecting unemployment as they prepare to go to college or other post-secondary training Still, advocates say joblessness is a serious problem for too many young veterans and needs to be addressed in better ways in the weeks after they’re discharged

The seminars soldiers are required to attend in the final days before they’re discharged have job-seeking information — but they don’t get the job done, according to Whitehead A big reason why is that the employment tips are part of a deluge of information soldiers receive at a time when the only thought in their mind is getting out and seeing family for the first time in months

With tens of thousands of veterans scheduled to return from Iraq and Afghanistan by January, the unemployment problem is expected to grow

Walz is one of more than 100 congressional co-sponsors of legislation that would provide tax credits to employers who hire unemployed veterans It also requires the Department of Defense to provide veterans with documents explaining the credit that they can attach to resumes

Walz said that he’s confident many business owners are ready to hire veterans, although they may require a reminder of the need One local business is already doing it — North Mankato-based Angie’s Kettle Corn

A Mankato Democrat, Walz said he noticed a beautiful 1967 Jeep for sale near downtown and saw a young man near it The man was a recently discharged Marine who couldn’t find a job, was running out of cash and decided he had to sell the Jeep

“He said, ‘I’ll do anything I’ll be a janitor, whatever,’” Walz said “ I called (Angie’s co-owner) Dan Bastian He said, ‘Send him up’”

More employers need to recognize the skills that the Iraq and Afghanistan vets have to offer, said Walz, an Army National Guard veteran And he said government needs to help erase roadblocks, mentioning soldiers who have driven trucks for years in combat zones or saved lives serving as medics but aren’t considered qualified to operate trucks or work as EMTs when they come home

Vietnam veteran Tom McLaughlin of Mankato said it’s also wrong that veterans don’t get a preference in applying for jobs with the state of Minnesota McLaughlin said he’s pushing legislation to return the veterans preference system for state jobs that was eliminated decades ago

He has a senator lined up to sponsor it but needs a House member Someone at the table suggested Rep Terry Morrow, a St Peter Democrat Walz suggested a two-sponsor solution

“Get Terry Morrow and Tony Cornish to sponsor it together,” Walz said, referring to the Good Thunder Republican and former Army tank commander

That played into one of Walz’s consistent themes — that assisting veterans is one place where bipartisanship is still possible in an increasingly fractured political environment

“How encouraging would it be to see Democrats and Republicans standing together?” he said

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