“Hang in there baby! You’re almost done.”
That was the best I could offer in my panicked, generally unintelligible speech of encouragement during my wife’s labor . . .at least the best I could offer from the heart of a war zone, 7000 miles away.
As if watching my wife go through labor on a tiny computer screen isn’t “exciting” enough, the Taliban decided to spice it up a bit that day. In the middle of a 36-hour labor that eventually ended in an emergency C-section, I heard the low rumble all too familiar to our daily lives in Kandahar: suicide bombers detonated themselves at the gates of our base, while another Talib fighter fired a rocket over the fence that exploded near my outdoor, wi-fi hotspot. We’re under attack, again.
It may sound like a big screen drama to most (or at least a Lifetime, made-for-tv version), but to my brothers serving over seas, it’s far too common.
Of course, it’s what we signed up for, and it’s all worth it.
For most of us, after a few weeks back from our little vacations in the desert, we are expected to fall right back into our family affairs, jobs, and normal routines. But what many of us don’t expect to return to, and is far too often the case, is the economic struggle and burden that is added to the personal healing.
Through 2012, the unemployment rate for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan remain at or above 12%, reaching 30% for veterans under 24 years of age. Many of these are Hispanic veterans, whose unemployment rates are even higher, averaging close to 17%. Far worse is the unemployment rate among Puerto Rican veterans, who deploy to war zones more frequently than any other demographic.
There are various programs created to address the problem. The President has touted a number of Veterans’ hiring initiatives, such as FedsHireVets, and every state has it’s own version. In my state, the Virginia Employment Commission provides dedicated caseworkers to help unemployed vets find work.
Then there are the countless non-profits who assist with the same mission. One of my favorites is The National Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce, who helps vets start businesses (O.K., yes, I am the Executive Director and that was a cheap plug).
Why, despite all of these programs combined with USERRA, designed to protect the civilian jobs of deploying servicemen, are so many seemingly highly trained veterans unemployed?
Government programs are great, but there is a limit to what the government can do. For example, business owners have very limited protections for their companies while deployed. If you are the key employee of your own business, there really is not much anyone can do to help.
The federal government can offer as many jobs to vets as it has available, but it will never have enough jobs to fulfill the needs of every veteran across the country.
As if employment is not a big enough concern, veterans often find their much-deserved and earned benefits under attack in Congress. Our troops don’t often fight the efforts, because it’s not in their nature to complain about sacrificing for the country. If it were not for one of the strongest lobbying efforts in the country, healthcare and VA benefits for troops would be among the first on the chopping block.
This week, after a long struggle with every veteran and military advocacy firm in the country, the Senate passed a bill that allows servicemen to retain many of their benefits, along with a modest increase in pay.
While federal workers guaranteed their benefits earlier in the year, why was this even such contentious debate in Congress?
After signing up to serve my country, I find it hard to complain about sacrificing if it helps combat our financial crises. However, I’m not a full-time serviceman and I am fortunate enough to have other means of income.
When I think about my brothers and sisters, veterans of every race and background, being denied benefits that they were previously promised and who often do have a hard time reintegrating into our economy, I’m reminded that they deserve so much more than we can ever offer.
JUSTIN VELEZ-HAGAN is Senior Contributing Writer and Commentator for Politic365.com. He returned from a tour in Afghanistan in November. He is also an Adjunct Instructor of Economics at the University of Maryland-University College and the National Executive Director of The National Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce. He can be reached at Justin@Politic365.com.