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Soldiers struggle for jobs after Service

- - Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Greg Pedrick of Catonsville, Md., figured his two tours in Iraq would qualify him for jobs in government law enforcement. He has a degree in political science and earned a Purple Heart as a Marine vehicle commander and team leader guarding convoys from insurgents south of Baghdad.

So he applied to Customs and Border Protection, to the Veterans Health Administration, to the Secret Service.

All said no, or said nothing.

Since May, Mr. Pedrick, 28, said he's applied for at least 20 positions with the federal government, where veterans get hiring priority. He's heard back about four. He's had no better luck with state and county jobs and has been looking for leads since earning his degree in January 2010.

"You apply for these jobs, and you have no idea," said Mr. Pedrick, who works hospital security but considers it a job, not a career. "Most of the time it takes six to eight weeks — or you don't even hear back."

Mr. Pedrick's experience is not unique. And some veterans have it even worse.

Nationwide, unemployment among veterans is 8.3 percent according to the most complete statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Maryland, this rate is lower, around 5.7 percent, but the disorientation veterans feel transitioning from war to the work force is the same.

Patrick Young, coordinator of veterans services at Towson University, left the Marines in 2005 and said he spent that summer doing nothing. By September, he'd decided to enroll in college, but he hadn't planned ahead and missed the deadline.

So three months to decompress from military life turned into half the year.

"You're lost for a minute. You feel behind," he said.

The military does offer courses on transitioning to civilian life, but Mr. Young, 28, said they seemed almost like an afterthought and would be more useful early in deployment when there's time to prepare school and job applications.

After coming home, Young said he got into trouble with alcohol and felt isolated when he realized the friends he'd gone out with after returning home had other responsibilities — and work.

When Mr. Young started work on a triple major at Towson University in philosophy, political science and religious studies and began meeting veterans going through the same struggles, he said that isolation began to fade. Now he spends his time helping others transition and trying to help them stay in school, where veteran dropout rates are high, he said.

The only unique thing about his experience, Mr. Young said, is that he decided to go to school and pursue something positive.

But living in Maryland can have advantages.

State officials said Maryland has a lower veteran unemployment rate than national figures, in part because military base realignments have brought jobs to the state, and also because the government has focused programs and money on helping the state's 13,000 unemployed veterans find careers.

In October 2010, Gov. Martin O'Malley's office announced the Warrior to Worker initiative, designed to boost the number of veterans hired by state agencies.

Jerry Boden, chief of staff for the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs, said budget constraints have limited hiring by the state government but that the program gives veterans better access to positions that may be open.

This spring, the state also launched mil2fedjobs.com, designed to match military job qualifications with job descriptions for federal jobs. Overhauls to the site are in the works, and representatives from the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation said they are working to implement changes without service disruption.

Mr. Pedrick, who left the Marines as a corporal in 2007, said he's used the site but didn't find it helpful.

The site said he would be qualified, for instance, to repair small arms, work as a mechanic on special weapons systems and handle toxic materials — jobs he said he doesn't want and isn't trained for.

But the idea of the site is to make it easier for veterans to show agencies that the skills they have from the military are the same things the government is looking for in new hires.

Some private companies recruit veterans openly. Others don't — and taking combat boots off a resume can be a struggle, especially for soldiers who joined the service right after high school or might not have other work experience.

"If a guy was in a tank for four years rumbling around in the desert, he might have a tough time explaining to a manufacturing company why he would be a good line supervisor," Mr. Boden said.

Maryland has a staff of veteran coordinators at each of its 33 One-Stop Career Centers — offices the state has kept open despite decreased federal funding that brought deep personnel cuts in other programs, such as apprenticeship training, that veterans use.

And recently, Fort Meade held a "Wounded Warriors" job fair for veterans and soldiers about to transition from the military. That's where some soldiers, like James Williams, an Army specialist stationed at Fort Meade, have started looking for work before leaving the service.

"I'm trying to have something lined up so I'm not coming out of the military blind," said Mr. Williams, 25, who has six to eight months of service remaining and is hopeful he'll find a job to provide for his wife and two daughters.

Grayson Wilkinson, 40, also at Fort Meade, said he thinks his experience as a movement coordinator, along with his security clearance, will be an asset in his job search. He started looking for positions this month, and said he isn't worried.

Mr. Pedrick said he, too, felt he'd be a perfect fit for the kind of work he's looking for. He said applying blindly without a chance to meet recruiters has been frustrating.

"I'm just ready to take the next step in my life," he said. "I feel like it's been put on hold."