As two wars draw to a close, the roughly 1.6 million veterans who have fought for America and survived will soon find themselves in the most civilian of activities -- looking for a job. For those who have already come home from the two wars, their search comes in a terrible economy. Although their unemployment rate has fallen from more than 15 percent three years ago, it still has remained uncomfortably high at 8.9 percent this summer (near the overall unemployment rate of 7.8 percent).
But the widely discussed issue of veteran unemployment often fails to acknowledge the plight of disabled veterans. Because of better medical care, more post 9/11 veterans are returning to the U.S. with service-connected disabilities. About 45 percent of the post-9/11 veterans have applied for disability benefits through the Veterans Administration, compared to just 20 percent of veterans from the first Gulf War. What are their job prospects? Paul Heaton is director of the RAND Institute for Civil Justice and an expert in studying disabled veterans. In an interview, Paul Heaton, the co-author of the June RAND report, "Compensating Wounded Warriors," discussed the challenges facing disabled veterans.
1. Officials government statistics likely underestimate how many veterans are disabled.
About 10 percent of post-9/11 vets are officially classified as disabled, but the actual number is likely even higher. About 45 percent of vets are seeking disability benefits from the Veterans Affairs Department, according to government reports.
The government sets a high bar for categorizing veterans as disabled. One out of four veterans who are "very injured" aren't officially considered disabled because government regulations require the veteran to be unable to carry out day-to-day responsibilities, according to Heaton. As a result, people with major back injuries, an inability to sleep or psychological issues stemming from post-traumatic stress disorder could get no financial assistance from the federal government.
For the very injured, the average wage loss is $40,000 a year, he says. (That figure includes the loss of salary for loved ones who care for injured veterans.) "We the American people, including the federal government, don't think enough about disabled vets," Heaton says, adding that the largest portion of disabled vets are older than 40. "Diabetes and psychological conditions in old age can often be traced back to original deployment, and these can and should often be included when checking for disabilities among veterans."
According to a RAND study, roughly 15 to 20 percent of post-9/11 veterans are suffering from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, but only half of those with PTSD sought mental health treatment in the previous year. (Studies suggest that getting treatment for PTSD early on -- usually in one-on-one therapy or group therapy -- facilitates recovery and may prevent some of its more dire consequences.) Nevertheless, research shows that post-traumatic stress has a negligible impact on average salaries between workers with PTSD and those without symptoms.
The ability to cope is just one aspect of PTSD veterans' uphill battle; employers may have every intention of hiring disabled veterans, but more than half of the managers surveyed nationwide by Hannah Rudstam, a researcher at the Employment and Disability Institute at Cornell University, said that hiring them requires extra accommodations.
3. The official unemployment rate for disabled veterans is misleading.
According to official tallies, the unemployment rate for post 9/11 veterans is 8.5 percent, about the same as the rate for all veterans, according to the the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the actual rate of unemployment among disabled vets is believed to be far higher. Many live on disability payments and don't seek employment, and so they are not counted in jobs numbers, according to Heaton.
4. The hiring climate for disabled veterans is improving, but more needs to be done.
Companies that have military contracts often are eager to hire veterans, disabled or not, says Heaton. It's possible for a disabled veteran to enter law enforcement even if he or she has suffered a combat injury that was life-threatening. (The websites for both the Labor Department and Veterans Affairs offer portals for job-seeking veterans. And the website Mashable.com also has put together a list of six additional employment sites for veterans.)
But Heaton says there needs to be specialized job search engines for disabled veterans. The job counseling that troops receive from military organizations sometimes doesn't acknowledge that a combat wound could debilitate one person but leave another unaffected. In the military, there's a culture of, "We are all in this together, so everyone gets the same treatment as much as possible," Heaton says.
The government could also do a better job of informing employers of tax credits that they can receive by hiring veterans. And all veterans still face obstacles in translating military skills into civilian life. Someone who is a medic in the armed forces doesn't have a credential to be a nurse right now, even if the jobs are largely the same. "We [the government] are doing and need to do more things to remove these barriers to recognize military credentials in civilian life," says Heaton.
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