A hard homecoming
Budget battles and a stagnant economy greet America’s soldiers as they return from Iraq and Afghanistan
BRETT QUINZON did two tours in Iraq before leaving active duty in May. Originally from Minnesota, Mr Quinzon now lives in Thomaston, a small town around 65 miles south of Atlanta. A grey December morning found him filling out forms in Atlanta’s large veterans’ hospital, seeking treatment for depression. Since returning from Iraq, he says he has more anger issues, and finds himself more watchful and on-guard in public situations than he was before he deployed. That is not unusual: many soldiers return from the battlefield with psychological scars. Between January and May, as he prepared to leave active duty, Mr Quinzon applied for hundreds of jobs. The search proved difficult: like many veterans, he enlisted right after high-school, and lacks a college degree. But persistence paid off. He is now an apprentice at a heating and air-conditioning company, and is being trained as a heavy-equipment operator.
Not all recent veterans are so lucky. Around 800,000 veterans are jobless, 1.4m live below the poverty line, and one in every three homeless adult men in America is a veteran. Though the overall unemployment rate among America’s 21m veterans in November (7.4%) was lower than the national rate (8.6%), for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan it was 11.1%. And for veterans between the ages of 18 and 24, it was a staggering 37.9%, up from 30.4% just a month earlier.
If demography is indeed destiny, perhaps this figure should not be surprising. More soldiers are male than female, and the male jobless rate exceeds women’s. Since so many soldiers lack a college degree, the fact that the recession has been particularly hard on the less educated hits veterans disproportionately. Large numbers of young veterans work—or worked—in stricken industries such as manufacturing and construction. Whatever the cause, this bleak trend is occurring as the last American troops leave Iraq at the end of this year, and as more than 1m new veterans are expected to join the civilian labour force over the next four years.
And of course it is also occurring in fiscally straitened times, though it looks as though this will affect veterans’ services less than other parts of the federal government. Though there have been some small fee increases for veterans covered by Tricare, the military health-insurance programme, significant cuts to veterans’ benefits are unlikely, and for good reason. Military pay is far from generous, and the benefits are comprehensive but hardly gold-plated or easy to navigate. Not for nothing is a popular online forum for veterans wending their way through the bureaucracy of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) called HadIt.com.