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Let's hire our vets, not make them hide

Posted: May 29, 2011 - 7:09pm

More than one out of four young veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan war won’t be enjoying a three-day Memorial Day holiday this weekend. That’s because they don’t have a job to take a break from in the first place: Twenty-seven percent are unemployed, a rate far higher than the 16.6 percent for a similar age group among non-veterans.

It’s hard to accept that so many of the young men and women who conquered unimaginable challenges in the mountains of Asia and the deserts of the Middle East are unable to connect with the current labor market. But those are the facts.

Alaska’s two senators are from different political parties, but both are ready to confront the unpleasant facts about the unemployment crisis among our young veterans. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Sen. Mark Begich are co-sponsors, along with Veterans’ Affairs Chairwoman Sen. Patty Murray, of the “Hiring Heroes Act.” The bipartisan bill would mandate, for the first time, job training for all servicemen and women before they leave the military. And it extends vocational rehabilitation and employment services to those who have exhausted state and federal benefits.

I served as a medic in Vietnam, and currently write about veterans’ issues at TheVeteransSite.com. So it’s especially painful for me to hear Sen. Murray report, when she introduced this legislation, that some veterans have decided they will no longer write down their dates of service on a resume or job application. Veterans fear, she said, “the stigma that they believe employers attach to the invisible wounds of war.”

Unemployment isn’t an invisible wound; it’s all too visible to the veteran who can’t find work and has no steady income. The most important thing in life for a veteran returning to society after a deployment to a war zone is to have a job — a job that pays a just and living wage.

Positive action at the federal level — and in the private sector — is needed to undo some negative aspects of the updated GI Bill passed last year. Congress cut back on benefits for veterans who are part-time students and made other cuts to reduce the legislation’s $2 billion price tag.

With unemployment for young veterans at 27 percent, is this really the place for Uncle Sam to save money? Educational opportunity is absolutely necessary for veterans to get the skill sets that will make them attractive hires, and not every veteran is able to leave the work force to enroll in school full-time.

Memorial Day is intended to honor those who lost their lives while serving in our nation’s military. It has become, over the years, a way to mark the first weekend of summer vacation season: Time to break out the barbecue and head for the beaches.

Enjoying the outdoors is one of the perks of living in a free country, where you can travel as you please and use your free time as you see fit. It is no exaggeration to observe that we would have no such freedoms if not for the men and women who have sacrificed for our country. Some never came back from their service; others have returned but often find hidden — and not-so-hidden — obstacles to education and employment.

Kudos to Senators Murray, Murkowski and Begich for taking steps to remove those obstacles. It will take more than legislation, however, to bring down the scandalously high unemployment rate for young veterans. All of us should do all we can to hire and help veterans. They had our back while they were in uniform. Now it’s time for us to have their backs.

• Doyle is a Vietnam veteran and a professor of humanities at Seattle University. He writes “Notes from a Veteran” at TheVeteransSite.com, a website whose charity partners provide meals for veterans in need.

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