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After Iraq, Finding Job Is A Challenge
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After Iraq, Finding Job Is A Challenge

Iraq

After Iraq, Finding Job Is A Challenge

After Iraq, Finding Job Is A Challenge
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As National Guard troops return from service in Iraq, many are looking for jobs. Elizabeth Wynne Johnson profiles Bill Ellis, one returning Guardsman and reports on his employment prospects and the challenges he faces.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Around the country National Guard troops are returning from service in Iraq to civilian life and for many that means looking for a new job. From north Idaho, Elizabeth Wynne Johnson has a profile of one young man who's contemplating his future and it's very different from what he imagined before the war.

ELIZABETH WYNNE JOHNSON reporting:

At 36, Specialist Bill Ellis' boyish face makes him look about 25. His Army platoon was assigned to Baqubah during the first Iraqi elections. Later he did urban patrols and trained Iraqi soldiers in the northern city of Kirkuk. But he's home now in Post Falls, Idaho. He's been back for a month but all his duffel bags are still packed.

Specialist BILL ELLIS (US Army): I honestly keep waiting for the phone call saying, `OK, now you're going here,' or something. I mean, I know it's not coming but it hasn't actually sunk in yet that I'm back and I'm not leaving again. I'm not sure if going to work is going to be what turns on that little light bulb or not.

JOHNSON: But he's ready to find out so he came here to a job fair in Couer d'Alene where scores of newly minted veterans shuffle past tables festooned with streamers, staffed by about a dozen would-be employers.

(Soundbite of job fair)

Unidentified Woman #1: Take an application, fill it out. We do keep those for a long time.

Spec. ELLIS: OK, thank you.

Unidentified Woman #1: You're welcome.

JOHNSON: The job seekers gather up brochures and blank application forms. Their prospects range from health care to heavy industry.

(Soundbite of job fair)

Unidentified Woman #2: We're an aluminum foundry so I am looking for people in our finishing department and in the machine shop department.

JOHNSON: Anywhere from 10 percent to 30 percent of National Guard soldiers return from Iraq looking for work. Federal law says that employers have to hold positions for guard members who are deployed but that doesn't mean every soldier will have a job when he or she gets back. Firms go out of business. Some of the troops were students before they left or they were self-employed or they've been injured and need something less physical. Now that they're back, veterans employment representative Robert Schuman says many of these soldiers are finding that the toughest part of deployment is the homecoming.

Mr. ROBERT SCHUMAN (Veterans Employment Representative): You know, for the soldier, for the family, and things are never really the same again. Whether it's for better or for worse or it's neutral, it's changed forever.

JOHNSON: When Bill Ellis left, he was a newlywed working part-time at Wal-Mart and going to school hoping to become a nurse. His wife Brandy worked full-time as an office manager. Now he's a dad with a wife who's a stay-at-home mom. Baby Logan was born while Ellis was in Iraq.

Spec. ELLIS: I could kind of see through pictures that he was getting bigger and stuff but it doesn't really sink in till they picked me up at the airport and she handed me this moose.

Ms. BRANDY ELLIS (Wife): He's a big boy.

Spec. ELLIS: He was big.

JOHNSON: With the new moose to feed, Ellis decided that a career in nursing was out. It would take too long to get the degree. Instead he started thinking about how his experience in the 116th Combat Brigade might translate to a new career.

Spec. ELLIS: We patrolled the city. We arrested people so, I mean, that would be law enforcement or, you know, security. But I did find out security guards don't make a whole lot of money so that's not a big avenue of approach for me.

JOHNSON: But he was anxious to find work. After a month he's made a decision.

Spec. ELLIS: They don't want to live off all of my savings so I took a job with LA Aluminum.

JOHNSON: He's traded body armor for earplugs and a plastic face shield as an apprentice at a north Idaho aluminum foundry. He makes about $12 an hour. He works on everything from heavy metal bases for dentist chairs to gaskets for towable tanks that will be shipped to Iraq.

Spec. ELLIS: Well, I'm grabbing the next part to cut, this little box here.

JOHNSON: His fingers guide metal castings back and forth against an 18-foot band saw that cuts like a hot knife through butter.

Spec. ELLIS: That's it and then they're sanding them as I'm cutting them.

JOHNSON: Ellis will still spend one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer with the National Guard. He'll be done in December unless he chooses to re-up.

Spec. ELLIS: Well, they're offering me $15,000 to re-enlist. So I'm weighing the pros and cons. I see a way to put a lot of money into savings and my wife sees another opportunity for me to go to Iraq.

JOHNSON: And, he says, for her that means another opportunity to possibly lose him in Iraq. For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Wynne Johnson.

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