Returning veterans often face financial challenges
Friday, November 11, 2011
NEW YORK (AP) — Financial literacy courses aren’t a part of basic training.
And since they aren’t part of most school curriculums, either, young men and women who enlist in the military right out of high school often don’t think about things like emergency funds, retirement savings or even household bills while they’re living on bases or deployed overseas.
It’s when they leave the service that those concerns become real for the first time.
“When you get out of the military, you have to find a place to live, make sure you’ve got transportation, and find a job,” said Mechel Glass, a Gulf War veteran and director of education for CredAbility, a consumer credit counseling service based in Atlanta. Many veterans need assistance to get started with those steps.
Reservists face their own set of concerns. Most who are deployed leave behind full-time jobs, which typically pay more than their military service. That often means leaving families behind to live for a year or longer on a sharply reduced income. Some employers continue to pay the difference between military and civilian pay for the duration of deployment, but that is far from universal.
Such income reductions can lead to financial crisis. One reservist’s family Glass worked with recently was just a few days away from having the lights turned off, and was also falling behind on the mortgage.
Whether leaving the full-time military or returning from deployment as a reservist, financial problems can compound an already confusing experience. Stepping into — or back into— the civilian sector after spending time in a combat zone can bring culture shock as vets get used to the pace and priorities of life outside the military.
If veterans are also recovering from physical injuries or mental health issues, that can complicate financial matters. That’s particularly true if there are unexpected medical expenses not covered by health insurance, or if their medical needs delay returning to work.
Then there’s the issue of finding work if they don’t have a job to return to.
While the national unemployment rate is stuck at 9 percent, the rate among the 2.3 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is over 13 percent.
Vets like Nick Colgin often leave the service with skills that should easily translate into civilian jobs. Colgin, a Virginia native, moved to Wyoming after his discharge from the Army, hoping to use the skills that earned him a Bronze Star as a combat medic in Afghanistan to become a first responder in the Cowboy State. “I felt it closely mirrored what I did in the Army,” he said of his vision to help rescue people from backcountry mishaps.
What he didn’t realize was that it’s not that easy. Colgin was 24 when he came off active duty in the spring of 2008 and didn’t fully appreciate how important a resume was in finding a job. “I didn’t know how to translate military experience as an accomplished medic into something the civilian world would value,” he said.
Nor was he aware of what certifications he would need to work in his chosen field. “Everywhere I went, it was ‘You need this, or you need that,”’ he said. “It’s hard to find your bearings.”
And sometimes it’s even harder to find the help you need.
Although the federal government requires all members of the military to take part in the Transition Assistance Program before they’re discharged, Colgin said for him that simply meant showing up to get a box on a form checked off.
“Some people might have a great experience in one location and others have a poor one at another location,” he said, admitting that he didn’t make the best use of the program. “I know some of it does fall on me, but at the same time, I think it’s unreasonable to expect a soldier who’s right back from being in war to dive right into classes on how to write a resume.”
Tom Tarantino, a former Army captain who now lobbies for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the method for transitioning service members out of the military is “horrible.”
“They join the military thinking they’re going to get great job skills, get great leadership training and they’ll have an easy time getting a job when they get out,” Tarantino said. But especially in a slumping economy, it’s not that easy.
One big issue is that like Colgin, many vets don’t know how to put together a resume that properly demonstrates what they accomplished and the roles they played in the military. And with an all-volunteer military since the 1970s, the chance that a vet applying for a job will be interviewed by another vet is small. “Twenty or 30 years ago, there was a pretty high probability that the person sitting across from you toted a machine gun around for a few years,” Tarantino said.
That leaves it up to the veteran to explain what it means to be a field artillery squad leader or how the responsibilities of handling logistical support for a company of nearly 200 soldiers can translate into workplace skills.
Colgin remembers searching for help in Wyoming and getting frustrated because he couldn’t find assistance. “I was in tears, because I didn’t want to be on unemployment,” he said. “I didn’t want to be in that situation at all.”
Eventually, he and his wife decided to move to Wisconsin, where they both enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs. Colgin also interned last summer for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which he said gave him valuable lessons.
He’s now working as the cinema coordinator, organizing on-campus film screenings, at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point while pursuing his studies.
As Veterans Day approached, President Obama spent the week pushing legislation that would create tax credits and other incentives for businesses to hire veterans, and announced an effort for the departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs and Labor to improve the career services and other elements of the transition programs for veterans as they leave the military.
Tarantino of IAVA said the efforts are a start, but it will likely be several months before changes in the transition programs start appearing.
In the meantime, the White House announced pledges by a number of private companies to hire veterans. And others are stepping in to help returning soldiers get a foothold in the workplace.
Among them, LinkedIn Inc. on Thursday launched a special site tailored for veterans with tips and information about job hunting. And Google Inc. has worked with Veterans Affairs to improve the job search portion of the website www.nationalresourcedirectory.gov . That site also has extensive information on transitioning, and links programs that offer services like job placement assistance and financial help.