- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 5, 2005


Nearly every day he was in Iraq, Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Steven Cummings would get so shaken by mortar round explosions that, even now, a year after his return home, he drops to the ground at the crackle of lightning.

Iraq had a big impact on Mr. Cummings in another way — his finances.

In his absence, his wife took out two mortgages on their home in Milan, Mich. They fell $15,000 in debt because the pay Mr. Cummings earned during his 14 months overseas was less than he had made as a civilian electrical controls engineer.

He has been laid off from two jobs in the year since he left Iraq. While other reasons were given for the layoffs, Mr. Cummings thinks both were related to his duty in the Michigan National Guard and the time off it requires.

Like some other veterans who have returned from Afghanistan and Iraq, he is struggling to find work.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do now. I’m in the exact position I was when I came back from Iraq,” said Mr. Cummings, a father of two. “I’m 50 years old and I have a mortgage payment due. I’m tired of it.”

Although many employers take pride in hiring veterans and make up any pay an employee lost while deployed, some are reluctant to hire reservists and Guard members who might have to deploy again, said Bill Gaul, founder and president of Destiny Group, an online organization that seeks to match employers and veterans.

Almost 490,000 troops from the Guard and Reserve have mobilized since the September 11 attacks. Of those, about 320,000 have completed their mobilization.

Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz, Pennsylvania Democrat, and Rep. Joe Schwarz, Michigan Republican, are co-sponsoring legislation that would give companies up to $2,400 in tax credits for each veteran from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars they hire.

That could be a “mini-windfall” for a small company, Mrs. Schwarz said.

The lawmakers said their proposed tax credit also would be extended to companies that hire dependents of soldiers who died in combat and the spouses of those in the Guard and Reserves who deployed longer than six months.

There are laws designed to protect the civilian jobs of deployed Guard and Reserve troops, but some still come home unemployed if their companies skirt the law or cut jobs for other reasons.

Army Sgt. Benjamin Lewis, 36, a civilian chef in Ann Arbor, Mich., lost his job when the restaurant where he worked burned down while he was in Iraq with the Michigan National Guard. He said some potential employers told him they could not hire him because he might be deployed again.

Others asked if he struggled mentally because of his time at war, Mr. Lewis said. He got so desperate he considered returning to Iraq with a new unit. Ultimately, he found work at a restaurant that is supportive of his military service.

“I was pretty frantic in the end,” Mr. Lewis said. “It was almost a year without a job.”

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