Unemployment among veterans was a key issue discussed among the 10,000 delegates at the three-day American Legion national convention in Minneapolis last week. President Obama’s August 30 address to the convention promised policy initiatives meant to ease the problem.
Jobless figures overall for all veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are “around 25 percent,” says American Legion Economic Position Director Joe Sharpe. The unemployment rate for female veterans has doubled from five and a half percent last year to 10.3 percent this year, added National Economic Issues Deputy Director Mark Walker.
“Far too many veterans are unemployed,” President Barack Obama told the Legion. Part of his jobs speech to Congress on Thursday will include tax incentives for businesses that hire returning veterans, urging the private sector to hire at least “100,000 jobs for veterans and spouses,” he added.
Although Legion officials say that they don’t track veterans’ unemployment by ethnicity, according to Sharpe it’s safe to say that Black veterans’ jobless rate is similar to unemployment rates among Black civilians. “I think that the economy is in such a recession now and there are so few jobs, we’re finding that high unemployment is across the board.”
Additionally, female veterans have their own set of problems, notes American Legion National Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission Director Verna Jones. “They want to be recognized for the service we provided for our country.
“Though some women veterans who come back may not have outside physical wounds, they have those invisible wounds of war that they have to get through. So many women veterans won’t tell about the traumatic experiences that cause them to have PTSD,” she noted.
The Legion in January conducted the first female veterans’ survey since 1985, and over 3,000 women vets responded, Jones noted. “What veteran women want is quality health care, affordable medications, and…equitable compensation just like their male counterparts.”
The results helped create a new outreach program for female veterans, says Jones. She points out, “This program is to develop a support group for female veterans and help guide them through the VA system.”
“There is a perception among the public that once you served in the military, and once you returned home, that you are OK, everything is fine,” continues Walker. “I think the public really doesn’t understand the challenges and issues that we have, whether it is just transitioning from the military world to the civilian world that is different: the language, the different protocol,” he says.
“Our focus has been in making sure that they either get in school, whether it’s vocational training or a four-year university or college, or finding employment,” Walker explains. The U.S. government invested “millions of dollars” to train these veterans, “and we don’t want that investment to be wasted.”
“It is a huge challenge,” Sharpe points out, “because when you join the military, it takes anywhere from three months to a year to become acclimated to the military environment, but we only give veterans three days to transfer out from being a solider to being a civilian. It is not enough [time] to get people ready.”
As a result, too often veterans aren’t properly prepared to look for work, Sharpe continues. “A complaint from employers is that the veterans just didn’t know how to present themselves, how to dress appropriately or what to put on their résumés.”
The American Legion is more than an organization of veterans who holds parades on selected holidays and sponsor baseball teams, says Jones, who also is a lawyer. “It has a large litigation unit. We have a board of veteran appeals where we have over 2,000 representatives throughout the United States who help veterans with their benefits. Those appeals reps submitted over 8,000 claims, and have been about 82 percent successful in having [claims denials] overturned or remanded back for further development.”
However, the Legion also has had a longstanding image of being an organization of old White war veterans. Even though it currently boasts a membership of 2.4 million men and women and over 14,000 posts worldwide that are open to all veterans, historically many Black veterans did not join.
Judging from those attending last week’s convention, the Legion is still mostly White.
“As the face of the soldier changes, the face of the veteran changes; therefore the Legion has to change,” believes Jones, who joined the Legion national office two years ago after six years working in her local Legion office in North Carolina. She served in the Army from 1987-1995.
“Prior to coming to work for the American Legion, I didn’t belong to the American Legion,” she admits. “I didn’t know just how much the American Legion does for veterans. It opened my eyes to a whole new perspective.”
Walker, a six-year Air Force veteran who served in Germany and the Philippines and joined the Legion five years ago, says, “It has been an enjoyable ride, first to have served my country, and now being in a position to help veterans who are currently serving and those who are leaving the service.”
Sharpe, a 16-year Army veteran now serving in the reserves, says, “It’s really rewarding” being in the Legion. He conducted a two-day business development workshop last Tuesday and Wednesday, and also helped conduct a Legion job fair held on August 27 that attracted nearly 400 veterans. “The [estimated 64] employers said they were really pleased with the quality of the candidates, and they found a lot of prospects,” he reports.
The Legion does a lot “for the [military] families at the community, state and local level as well as internationally,” notes Walker. An example was how the local American Legion post helped Charlene Wilcox of Cottage Grove, whose son Carlos Wilcox IV was killed in Iraq in 2009, attend the president’s speech last week.
Wilcox shook President Obama’s hand afterwards. “To be able to come here and to meet him and tell him thank you…it is definitely an honor,” she said.
“No matter when you served, America will never leave your side,” President Obama told the veterans of conflicts ranging from World War II, Korea and Vietnam to the two longest wars in American history, Iraq and Afghanistan, and any other honorable service within the U.S. Armed Forces.
“It is not just the federal government’s obligation or the [Obama] administration’s obligation to help veterans,” says Walker. “It’s America’s obligation to help veterans, because they are serving you.”