Tough Economy Hurts Veterans Looking For Work

On this Veterans Day, a day to recognize those who have served in the military, Morning Edition considers the reality of what veterans face when they come home. Veteran Affairs Secretary Gen. Eric Shinseki talks to Steve Inskeep about veterans who return from Iraq and Afghanistan to find the economy hurts their chances of finding work.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Just before this Veteran's Day, we sat down with retired Army General Eric Shinseki. He's now secretary of Veteran's Affairs and he had a piece of paper in his hand, an essay written by an Iraq War veteran as he applied to college. The veteran wrote of his experience overseas.

ERIC SHINSEKI: Six months into the tour, I was a turret gunner, our vehicle drove over a roadside bomb. Initial report listed me as killed in action. I had broken every bone in my right leg, shattered my knee, cracked my pelvis open, had traumatic brain injury. Two years and more than 15 surgeries later, I'm ready to start down a new path.

INSKEEP: Those are the words of Evan Cole(ph) , who was accepted to college. They were read there by Eric Shinseki, whose job is to help veterans start down that new path. We spoke with the secretary at a moment when many veterans are struggling to get into school or get a job.

SHINSEKI: It is true that for our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, at 12.1 percent unemployment, they exceed the national rate by about three percentage points. And I think this is why we hear the president stepping out and leading in this area, trying to provide incentives for hiring young veterans. And this is the jobs bill. This is his speech in August at the American Legion. We won't balance this budget on the backs of veterans. I mean all very, very strong statements.

INSKEEP: We're talking about people who might be 25, 30, 35. I mean, we're not talking about people who are toward the end of their careers.

SHINSEKI: That's correct. A large preponderance of them are the younger veterans.

INSKEEP: I was surprised by this news. And a reason was that in years past people have sometimes looked into the employability of veterans. And it's actually been found that experience in military is seen as a benefit. Large corporations like to take in people who have worked in a very large organization that seems to function well. Why wouldn't that be holding true now?

SHINSEKI: Tough economic times. Toughest in my lifetime. But I think you're recall about folks who had served in the military having skills and knowledge and attributes that made them good employees, that's still true. The young generation that's currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have the opportunity when they return to take advantage of things like this new 9/11 GI Bill that allows them to go to college. Not every generation had that. The last time an education opportunity of this magnitude was provided by the government was 1944.

INSKEEP: In past years when we have talked about veterans, we have frequently ended up talking about different kinds of trauma - physical, psychological, emotional. Even if it's hard to quantify in terms of statistics, I wonder if anecdotally you think that might be part of the problem. It's harder for people to restart their lives or even there might be employers who are not sure they want to take on a veteran.

SHINSEKI: That could be part of it. I mean, I think there are certainly some who are cautious. And my message to them is that they don't have to worry about this. We have tremendous youngsters who are coming back ready to go to work, and the number who have the sort of serious challenges that we hear a lot about are a very small number. And V.A.'s responsibilities here are important. We provide mental health treatment for those. But the vast majority of our youngsters coming back don't have those serious issues.

INSKEEP: Let me also ask about the GI Bill - the post 9/11 GI Bill to which you referred. I guess we should explain for people this is simply making it easier for veterans to afford tuition to college.

There has been, as I'm sure you know very well, some discussion of restraining the growth of the budget of that program as part of the broader effort to cut the federal deficit. It's been discussed in Congress. It's been discussed before the supercommittee that's considering deficit reductions now. Can you do that in a way that would not be too harmful to people?

SHINSEKI: I don't know how they would do that without having an impact on what the program intends to do at a time when the country is faced with such difficult economic challenges. I mean, I go back to the original GI Bill, World War II. The generation that went through the original GI Bill is the generation that took our economy to the world's highest performer, took this country to its leadership position. But it's because those who came through that program rose to leadership in government and business and religion and education, you know, a variety of ways. I think, personally, that this 911 GI Bill has the potential to do the same kind of thing. These youngsters had tough missions, and they're back to bring their talent and experience to be put to work here in this country. Supercommittee has a tough mission, as well. Our youngsters accomplished their mission, and I look forward to the supercommittee doing the same.

INSKEEP: Secretary, thanks very much.

SHINSEKI: Steve, Always great to see you. Thank you.

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