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Tough homecoming

PETER O’CONNOR
Guest Columnist
opinion@lbknews.com

Recently I was flying home through two airports, both in the South. As I waited for our flight I heard something I thought fine in the departure area next to ours. The gate agent called that flight; she then announced that uniformed military personnel would be asked to board first. The good folks waiting for that flight broke into loud applause as several young troopers went on board. Wow, I thought. Good for us. This is a stark difference from our welcomes home from Vietnam some years ago.

I’m pleased to see us treat our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines well. We all know they have been treating us well over the past decade. While I was feeling good, I read a piece on the plane in The Economist (Dec. 17, 2011) headlined, “A hard homecoming.” It goes on, “Budget battles and a stagnant economy greet America’s soldiers as they return from Iraq and Afghanistan.”

That headline gave me pause. I read on.

In an anecdotal story about a young veteran from Minnesota, The Economist authors point out that many veterans enlisted right out of high school and lack a college degree. Their anecdote has a happy ending as the young Minnesotan found a job. “Not all recent veterans are so lucky.” They point out some sobering statistics:

“Around 800,000 veterans are jobless, 1.4 million live below the poverty line, and one in every three homeless adult men in America is a veteran.” These are bad numbers. Like many of you, our readers, I’m a veteran and I don’t like them.

It gets worse. According to our British cousins, “Though the overall unemployment rate among America’s 21 million veterans in November (7.4 percent) was lower than the national rate (8.6 percent), for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan it was 11.1 percent. And for veterans between the ages of 18 and 24, it was a staggering 37.9 percent, up from 30.4 percent just a month earlier.” Wow, again. Some of you might recall my reporting from the USS Enterprise last summer. There the average age of the sailors and marines aboard was 19, that’s 19. Some 10 percent were women. I was again on board that ship very recently. I saw more bright-eyed young sailors eager to learn to man that fine warship. What does the future hold for these splendid lads and lassies?

Our authors, who datelined their story Atlanta, and Corbin, Ky., added some perspective. “If demography is indeed destiny, perhaps this figure (the 37.9 percent) 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 1 million new veterans are expected to join the civilian labor force over the next four years.”

The British authors seem just a bit fixated on education or lack thereof. Maybe so.

We’ll all agree that a wide array of government programs has failed to get our veterans back to work. The Economist points out, “The post 9/11 GI Bill, signed into law by George Bush junior in 2008, has at least helped veterans go back to school. Barack Obama created a Council on Veterans Employment in 2009, and the federal government hired more than 70,000 veterans in both 2009 and 2010. On Nov. 21 Mr. Obama signed a bill offering tax credits to employers who hire unemployed or disabled veterans.” They add the obvious, “Still, commissions, initiatives and incentives can only go so far.” Many of us benefitted from earlier GI bills. I earned my Harvard degree on the GI Bill, much to the chagrin of those professors. Such largesse bothered even their liberal leanings. Did you know that the post-9/11 bill offers education credit for veterans’ dependents? These plans worked before; they will again.

More than 2 million soldiers, and other service members, served in Iraq and Afghanistan. A lot you might think, but this number accounts for less than 1 percent of us Americans. Many servicemen and women return to find themselves the only people in their towns or communities who served. In the Vietnam era with its draft, more had been involved. Our town, LBK, skipped any Veterans Day observance this year!

More from The Economist, “Jon Soltz, who spent the last year serving in Iraq as a major advising the Iraqi army and before that headed a left-leaning veterans-advocacy group called Votevets, went to the bank a couple of days after he returned home. He told the teller he no longer lived at the address on file and had spent the last year in Iraq. ‘She asked me if I was there on vacation.’”

Major Soltz goes on, “People aren’t going to understand. People aren’t living it. It was a chosen war, and the country was never really engaged in it.” I agree.

Some vets say that they certainly have a distracted nation’s gratitude. Those good folks in the airport were sincere in their applause. But gratitude never paid a bill. Look around; pay attention. Maybe we’re all just a bit too complacent, yes lazy, in our beautiful spot by the sea.

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