Job challenges loom for war vets

@CNNMoney March 22, 2012: 1:41 PM ET
Army vet Chris Cowan, right, served with

Army vet Chris Cowan, right, served with "Outlaw Platoon" author Sean Parnell in Afghanistan. Cowan later found a civilian job as a police officer, but some of his platoon buddies struggle with unemployment.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan face unique hurdles in an already tough job market.

Many have suffered physical and mental injuries. Others have a hard time getting employers to see the value of their wartime experience.

"Being the best mortar man in the best battalion in the world doesn't mean a whole lot when you come out," said Sean Parnell, author of "Outlaw Platoon," a book about his experiences as an Army platoon leader in Afghanistan in 2006. "Fifty percent of my men who are now out of the military are living paycheck to paycheck -- working as a busboy, or at a bar, or maybe not working at all."

More than 2.2 million soldiers, Marines and sailors have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Another 90,000 troops are slated to return from Afghanistan by 2014.

For a long time, post 9/11 veterans have faced a much higher jobless rate than the general population. Just a year ago, it stood at 12.5%, well above the national average. A big push by employers and government knocked the rate to 7.6% in February, even below the overall U.S. unemployment rate of 8.3%.

Still, many veterans struggle to find work.

"These guys have these bang-up resumes for the military and then they get out and civilians don't know what to do with them," said Parnell. "So they end up working at a Subway."

Best jobs if you're leaving the military

This is what happened to one of his former troops, 27-year-old Marcel Rowley, who went from being a combat infantryman in Afghanistan to a minimum-wage busboy in California. Rowley, who had been in firefights with insurgents in the Afghan mountains, had to compete against high school kids to get a restaurant job.

"It took a lot of self control," Rowley said, recalling the times when he dealt with difficult customers. "I definitely had times when I wanted to rip people's faces off."

He realized his military experience meant nothing at home. He had gone to boot camp right after high school, and he said that in the eyes of employers it was almost as if he'd been frozen in time.

Rowley -- who is now a full-time student on the GI Bill at South Lake Tahoe Community College in California -- and many young vets like him never had a chance to build resumes in the civilian work force.

Other ex-soldiers have difficulty getting work because they're suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, which can often go undiagnosed, according to Parnell, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in clinical psychology in Pittsburgh.

Chris Brown, who also served with Parnell, struggled to find work for years before going on full disability for PTSD. When returned from Afghanistan in 2007 he initially received 50% disability for PTSD and shrapnel injuries. He tried to find work in the United States, and then spent a couple of years working odd jobs in Canada.

"I actually had to move to Canada to find work," Brown said, a former Humvee gunner. "I was an illegal immigrant in Canada!"

When he finally came back to the states, Veterans Affairs put him on 100% disability for PTSD, which now pays him $32,000 a year.

Phillip Baldwin, 40, had a career to come home to after his stint in Afghanistan, but both his tour and his options were cut short when he was shot in the spine and foot during a firefight.

Before joining the military, the father of four worked as a conductor and dispatcher at the St. Louis railroad terminal. He was medically retired from the Army and, after months of hospitalization, returned to work for the railroad.

Baldwin's injuries prevented him for being a conductor, so he became a dispatcher. Then his nerve damage got worse, and he had to go on a morphine pump just to function. The drugs created a safety hazard, so his responsibilities were scaled back. Eventually, he was laid off.

"They didn't have to keep on a damaged employee who really didn't add a tremendous amount to their work force," Baldwin said. "I acknowledge that. But I felt kind of ashamed."

Hydrogen fuel cells join the Army

He realized he had to rely on his mind instead of his body to make a living, so he returned to college through a program funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Baldwin expects to graduate in May with a degree in political science from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. He will begin law school at St. Louis University in August.

Every soldier has a military occupational specialty, a skill that requires specific training. Some of these skills -- such as pilot, dentist or mechanic -- have a natural fit in the civilian world.

But infantryman often find that their skills are not so easily transferable -- unless they want to be police officers.

Chris Cowan, who served in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007, has been an officer with the Syracuse Police Department in New York for four years. He says it's a job where wartime experience is a valuable skill.

"To be a good cop, it helps to be a little paranoid, and infantrymen who have been in combat tend to be a little paranoid," Cowan said. To top of page

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