NPR logo Essay: Troops In Iraq Face Economic Battle At Home

Essay: Troops In Iraq Face Economic Battle At Home

Nate Rawlings i

Capt. Nate Rawlings salutes one of his soldiers who decided to reenlist. Courtesy Nate Rawlings hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy Nate Rawlings
Nate Rawlings

Capt. Nate Rawlings salutes one of his soldiers who decided to reenlist.

Courtesy Nate Rawlings

Capt. Rawlings Takes Your Questions

Do you have a question for Capt. Rawlings about the situation in Iraq or his thoughts on withdrawal? Post your inquiry at the bottom of this page, and he'll pick several questions to answer.

Getting access to American news in Iraq is easier than ever. Unfortunately, it's not the comfort it once was.

During past combat tours, soldiers would return from patrols, log on to the Internet and feel good that, while things might be falling apart in Iraq, life back home was stable. Now, as we make tremendous gains in security and infrastructure in Baghdad, the life we yearn for is falling apart.

As my good friend Dawn pointed out in an e-mail, every one of the top 10 most e-mailed stories in The New York Times on Dec. 8 addressed the current economic recession. And via The Boston Globe, I learned that even poor Santa has been having trouble getting work.

Although troops in Iraq and Afghanistan face a myriad of challenges during combat operations, they have been spared most of the day-to-day carnage of the current recession. Some of the recent developments have been positive: For those with spouses and children back home, falling gas prices and desperate retail bargains have meant they are spending less to support their families. They have managed to save more, to lower their debt and, in some cases, to make their first investments. Single soldiers, for the most part, sever all economic ties when they deploy, breaking leases and leaving cars with family or friends, resulting in few monthly bills.

The grace period will soon end. In the final months of deployment, soldiers in our unit are preparing to return to an economic wasteland far different from the country they left a year ago.

"I think people getting out are in more danger than they think," said Capt. Josh Hall, an engineer officer who has decided to remain in the Army for at least another year, rather than try to find work in such a grim economy. "It's a bad crossroads, because a lot of soldiers are getting out because they keep doing [combat] tours, but the job market is collapsing behind them."

This assessment is even more accurate for enlisted soldiers than for officers. Young captains who consider leaving the military do so with a college degree and significant management experience. But unless an enlisted soldier has an occupational specialty with a directly applicable skill set, he faces a depleted job market. And while the military offers transition training, such as resume-writing courses and seminars on how military skills translate to a civilian workforce, soldiers must find a new job largely on their own.

Among the many soldiers I spoke with, the guaranteed job security and universal health coverage provided by the military have been the most cited reasons for remaining in the Army.

But for many of those who have spent years away from their families, it's still not worth it.

"Personally, I would rather be underpaid and with my family than overpaid and here," said Capt. Jeff Tounge, a West Point graduate with two young daughters who has served two deployments in Iraq. "Besides, it's a good time to join the economy in recession because there's room for tremendous growth."

Joining a company at this time may be difficult for Tounge, but he believes that if he can get his foot in the door, there are unlimited opportunities for advancement as the economy eventually heals.

Capt. Justin Twombly, the logistics officer for my battalion, has a similar outlook.

"I'm not that concerned about leaving the Army," he said. "I realize that finding a job might be more difficult in the coming months, but I've got tremendous skills I've developed over the past five years, and my wife and I want more than six months together before one or the other of us is dragged off on another deployment."

Justin's wife, Capt. Jen Twombly, is the communications and automations officer in my battalion. While Jen served her first overseas deployment in Egypt, Justin served as a tank platoon leader in Iraq's infamous "Triangle of Death," living on and fighting from his tank for weeks at a time. Both of the Twomblys are now here in Iraq and will be leaving the service upon our redeployment.

"There have to be proactive leaders in the military as well as in the civilian workforce to build up the economy and help businesses live by their good name," Justin continued. "I've been a good leader in combat, and I'm going to work very hard to be one of those leaders in the civilian sector."

Many friends and family have asked me if the changes in the economy have altered my plans to leave the Army. I made the decision to exit the service before this combat tour, before the recession began. While the current state of the economy has made me appreciate the guaranteed job and benefits, I still believe that the time is right for me to leave the service. I have enjoyed writing these columns tremendously and have decided that rather than film school — my plan six months ago — I would like to tell stories through journalism. It has been one of the great pleasures of my life to be a soldier, but I am looking forward to concentrating on writing, which has been the great passion of my life.

I'm aware that it won't be an easy path. As I completed my application to journalism school, the Tribune Company filed for bankruptcy. And as I finished this piece, I learned that Day to Day would be canceled, and the wonderful and talented people with whom I have worked these past few months will soon be seeking new jobs.

The tremendous turmoil in the journalism community is tragic, but it does not change my belief that there are stories that still have to be told. As the war in Iraq winds down, we will undertake troop surges in Afghanistan, a different and difficult war that will last for many years. The Obama administration faces enormous diplomatic challenges in all regions of the world. I hope to be among those writing that record and believe that despite all the odds, it's the best possible time to join the world of journalism.

When young soldiers ask me about the recession and whether the economy will ever recover — how such a cataclysm can befall our nation — I tell them to watch The Godfather, stemming from my belief that the classic film contains metaphors for almost any topic. The scene I ask them to reference is the one in which Clemenza teaches Michael Corleone how to make tomato sauce; he explains the impending war between the five families of the New York mafia and why they have to "go to the mattresses."

"These things have to happen every 10 years or so," Clemenza explains, "just to get the bad blood out." I tell my soldiers that recessions come and go, and in the associated carnage, they trim the fat off of the economy and shine a spotlight, sometimes painfully, on processes that were not working. This recession looks to be longer and more painful than most, and so I encourage them to "go to the mattresses" in the ways that work for them. If that means remaining in the service and serving yet another combat deployment, that is a valid option. If they choose to exit the service, they understand that the job market is difficult and that they must be prepared to do more with less. Regardless of their plans, I encourage them to save as much money as they can, cut costs and make smart investments.

The decision to exit or remain in the service is a difficult one, and it is one that each soldier must make at the appropriate time. Most joined to serve in the defense of their country, and the majority of those who remain do so out of that continued desire. Faced first with a war that never seemed to end and now a recession without an identifiable terminus, soldiers universally hope that the bad economic blood will be spilled and the economy will heal. When they leave the service, their employment options will hopefully reflect the effort and sacrifices they have made.

Throughout the past few months, Capt. Rawlings has been answering readers' questions. Post your inquiry below and he'll choose a few to answer.

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