Some are grappling with the after-effects of post-traumatic stress and injury. Others are finding it difficult to make the transition to the civilian economy, facing unemployment, poverty and homelessness.
The Department of Corrections will close two more prisons this year, bringing to a total of nine the number...
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This special report was produced in partnership with WBEZ Chicago's Front and Center project, and is the first in North Country Public Radio's series looking at the efforts of young American veterans to climb the economic ladder.
Josh Jones is a sophomore at Paul Smiths College. He looks the part of the American college student: he has a little beard and 20 or 30 extra pounds, plays Dungeons and Dragons and studies fisheries and marine biology. He’s got big plans for the weekend: "We’re having a Star Wars marathon with the anime and gaming club."
For generations, poor and working class men from small towns and inner cities have seen the military as a way to get leadership experience, hone job skills and strengthen their resumes. But more and more veterans have been falling off the economic ladder, facing high unemployment, homelessness and dead-end jobs. Estimates vary, but unemployment for veterans is running well above the national average. And for vets under the age of 24, unemployment still tops 30 percent.
Earning your American Dream
Josh went overseas in late 2006, on the front end of the surge sent into Iraq by George W. Bush. Back then, the economy was booming and Josh was a believer. Like a lot of guys from rural Pennsylvania, Josh comes from a military family. Defending his country seemed like a basic step toward the American dream: "You should earn your rights as an American. You shouldn't just be awarded them by being born here. So I wanted to earn my rights by doing a stint of service."
The way Josh saw it, he'd do his time in Iraq, maybe build a career in the Army. If that didn't work out, he'd translate his experience into a good job as a state cop or a prison guard.
The US military pushes this idea—not just patriotism, but the idea that for guys like Josh, who don't have the grades or the money for college, serving in the Army can move them up the first rung on that economic ladder.
But right from the start, Josh found that this war was different than he expected. Iraq was messy. It was dangerous, but also confusing: "When it comes to like actual engagements with the enemy, it was nothing more than they emptied a clip in our direction and ran away."
A generation of lost soldiers
When Josh came home in 2010, he says the Army gave him two weeks of coaching—how to do a job interview, how to write a resume. He says it felt like a ritual, like they were just going through the motions: "I mean it's the same program for a guy who's been in three years and a guy who's been in 20 years. It’s a one shoe fits everybody."
Jobs in small town Pennsylvania were never exactly plentiful. But now good jobs—especially government jobs—were evaporating. He tried to find work as a cop or a prison guard, but there was a glut of military veterans scrapping for fewer and fewer positions. He was put on a waiting list just to get an interview.
"So that's when I spent a whole year doing nothing, just looking for work. I felt useless in a way. I'm not contributing to anything. My family has bills too and there I am just sleeping in their rooms and eating their food. A year of stagnation and it was just frustrating."
Josh had joined a generation of military veterans struggling to find a place in a crippled civilian economy.
Twenty-five-year-old Justin Jankuv is a friend of Josh and also served in Iraq. The two are part of a military club on campus. He says when he came home, "I was basically living at my friend's house, in his attic. And to be honest, I think his parents got sick of me being there. Because all I did was just vegetate for six to seven months."
He says the grim economy is only part of the problem for veterans—there's also a kind of culture shock. Guys who are used to a steady paycheck and clear chain of command find themselves struggling to adapt to a cut-throat fast-changing job market. "When you get out, you're kind of like a lost dog. I really didn't know what to do or where to go."
An old tale
It turns out this is an old story in America.
Soldiers coming home from World War I planned on picking up their lives just where they left off...only for a lot of them it didn't turn out that way. Soldiers back them learned the jobs they’d left behind were gone.
They were mocked in the press and by politicians as bums and "bonus marchers." In 1932, Herbert Hoover sent in military forces, who torched a camp occupied by thousands of veterans in Washington DC.
The GI Bill
In the 1940s Franklin Roosevelt decided to create special programs aimed at helping soldiers fighting in the Second World War. When they came home, things would be different.
There would be money and services to help them reintegrate. That was known as the GI Bill.
By some accounts, the GI Bill changed America, turning farmers and factory workers into engineers, businessmen and entrepreneurs—helping to create a new path to the middle class.
But a lot of veterans say this time—after the wars that followed 9/11—that promise hasn't been kept. Roughly 70,000 vets are homeless. A study released last December by the Center for American Progress found that more than a million veterans—many under the age of 30—are living in poverty.
Josh Jones says he's pessimistic about the future, about the opportunities for guys like him who served the country. He says he doesn’t see a future where he wouldn’t be living paycheck to paycheck. "No, I don't. It's just going to be where you're born into—kind of a caste system almost."
In part two of this story, we'll talk more with Josh and other combat veterans who are struggling to grab the first rung of the economic ladder—and look at some of the programs designed to help them find a fresh start.