- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2009

Raymond Martinez couldn’t find a job to support his family after completing a year of duty as a National Guardsman specialist on the battlefields of Afghanistan.

The 22-year-old Texan continued his National Guard duties on weekends in Laredo as part of Operation Jump Start protecting the border against a flood of illegal immigration and spent his weekdays looking for work.

“It was difficult to find a job in my community; they never called me back,” Mr. Martinez said.

Charles Cass had trouble finding a job after completing his military service, while Troy Hererra was twisting in red tape trying to obtain his GI Bill benefits to continue his education.

They are just a few of the 1,000 veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan who got a big welcome home this year from the Texas Veterans Leadership Program, created by Tom Pauken, a Vietnam Army veteran and chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission.

“They helped me look for a job and booked interviews,” said Mr. Martinez, who is now a correctional officer and will start school in the spring to pursue a degree in law enforcement.

“I can’t just go to school and not have a job at the same time. I’m a man, and I need to support my wife and pay for insurance and buy groceries,” Mr. Martinez said.

The leadership program, which is operated by fellow Iraq or Afghanistan veterans, coached Mr. Cass to prepare for interviews and helped him fill out applications. He now makes $4,000 a month working for an oil company.

After the Department of Veterans Affairs denied Mr. Hererra’s GI Bill claim, the leadership program guided him through the appeals process. He is now enrolled in the Navarro Police Academy, paying for the training with the $120,000 he earned.

The leadership program is modeled on the Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program that Mr. Pauken created after he was appointed by President Reagan in 1981 to serve as director of the volunteer program ACTION, now known as AmeriCorps.

“It was run by Vietnam veterans to help fellow Vietnam veterans who were unemployed or had lingering problems with their experiences over there,” Mr. Pauken said.

“We asked ourselves: What does America do with the experience these men had? And the answer was, put it to work. That’s the message we are trying to put into play in Texas with the Texas Veterans Leadership Program. It is run by returning veterans for returning veterans to help them make the transition to civilian life,” Mr. Pauken said.

Many veterans don’t realize that military service allowed them to develop valuable work skills that can be transitioned easily to civilian jobs, Mr. Pauken said.

“We’re putting their leadership skills to work to make them a positive member of society,” Mr. Pauken said.

About 1,000 veterans were helped last year through word of mouth, and the program has obtained access to discharge papers that will allow returning veterans to directly reach out and contact as many as 25,000 veterans in 2009.

The leadership program also guides veterans through any crisis they might encounter when they return to Texas, whether it’s their VA benefits, health care or financial jams.

“One veteran returned home to find out that his wife was involved with another man, and she maxed out his credit cards. He was in a desperate situation and we helped him get emergency financial assistance,” Mr. Pauken said.

“Another veteran had a very bitter divorce and custody fight and was going broke paying his lawyers fees, so we found a lawyer to handle his case pro bono,” Mr. Pauken said.

The Texas program has not being duplicated, but Mr. Pauken said other states are showing interest and are following its progress.

“The key issue is that these people answered our countries call during a very difficult time, and they were all volunteers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have gone through a lot and they have leadership skills and a work ethic, and they made a commitment to our country. We take that experience and put it to work,” Mr. Pauken said.

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