ARUN RATH, HOST:
Early in his first term five years ago, President Obama announced the implementation of the Post 9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The first GI Bill helped build a postwar economy that has been transformed by revolutions in communication and technology. And that's why the Post 9/11 GI Bill must give today's veterans the skills and training they need to fill the jobs of tomorrow.
RATH: The federal government has spent more than $30 billion on that training since 2009, according to the Veterans Administration. But still the unemployment rate among vets is higher than the national average. Veterans emerge from their service with high-level skills but it's often not easy to turn those skills into credentials for a civilian job. That's our cover story today.
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RATH: Believe it or not, no one was even tracking graduation rates for veterans using GI Bill money let alone more detailed information, until this year.
CHRIS CATE: It was surprising when I first started, how little we know of student veterans in their accomplishments.
RATH: Chris Cate is the author of the first real-time study of how well the GI Bill works.
CATE: This is the first time that we've been able to properly identify both student veterans and be able to match them up with academic outcomes.
RATH: The study has been criticized for not incorporating enough data from for-profit institutions. But for now it's the only study we have. Cate is establishing a baseline.
CATE: About 52.1 percent of our sample graduated with some type of degree. That's anywhere from a certificate to a doctrine.
RATH: That's notably higher than a typical civilian graduation rate which is less than half. The study found business, firefighting and security and health care were the most popular fields. Derek Bennett is the chief of staff of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
DEREK BENNETT: Amongst our veterans who have gone back to school for both bachelors and masters degrees by almost fully 50 percent, they're pursuing business degrees. I think that's because it's the most utilitarian. Firefighting, you know, security work, those are the kinds of things that can transfer directly from the military experience that you bring to bear, and it also is another way of giving back to the community. What we find amongst veterans is that's a major theme. They want to continue to build and give back to the community.
RATH: But the transition to civilian life is not easy. Leaving aside the huge issue of the psychological transition, vets often require a lot of schooling to reenter the civilian workforce.
BENNETT: Some of the challenges that folks have with specific skill sets in translation are often digital and cyberwarfare folks who may have extensive knowledge of how to best build IT infrastructures, etcetera but might not have the exact certifications in, you know, Microsoft server systems or sales force. And so therefore have a difficulty translating that.
One of the things that's troubling across the nation though are folks who are not trying to switch functions. So a combat medic who wants to be an EMT often has difficulty getting the proper accreditation from municipalities because just because you performed, you know, medical trauma response on the battlefield, that often doesn't mean you're qualified to go work in Dallas as an EMT.
ERIC STRAND: So my name is Eric Strand. I was in the military for about 14 years, did three deployments to Iraq during that time.
RATH: Eric says he was a high school dropout with few prospects when he joined the Army in 1999. But he got into the Special Forces and became a medic.
STRAND: I personally, as a medic, didn't see much until I went to Baghdad in 2005. We were in a small camp kind of in the middle of Baghdad and people would often bring their casualties to us because there was no other safe haven in the middle of the kind of congested areas of the city. So I would see quite a few patients that had been injured by explosives pretty much any way you can imagine somebody being injured by a bomb.
RATH: Eric became an expert in treating combat injuries. Still he wasn't sure he was up for the day-to-day demands of being a doctor.
STRAND: Around my third trip to Iraq I was kind of getting burnt out on being available to people all the time. You know, I had teammates knocking on the door in the middle of the night every time they had heartburn. And I was starting to feel like maybe I didn't have the personality to be a full-time medical practitioner.
Then there was one night where there was a big fire fight and one of my good friends Jason Brown was killed. And the other medic on the team was wounded that day and he was somebody I really respected and looked up to as a professional. He was the kind of medic I wanted to be. So there were about eight people wounded total that day and we had to wait for about two hours before the helicopters would fly in, so obviously dealing with a whole lot of injuries on my own in a situation without a lot of help.
So fast forward a few months, we went to Arlington to visit Jason's grave and then went to visit Michael. He was at Walter Reed, and he just said some really encouraging things to me about, you know, hey, I'm really glad it was you that day and I think you did a wonderful job. And that was kind of the day I decided, you know, maybe I can do this medicine thing. And I started exploring how I was going to actually get into medical school, which is pretty daunting if you're active duty military.
RATH: Eric asked to be reassigned to Fort Bragg where he could train young medics while he finished his undergrad classes at the University of North Carolina.
STRAND: And at the same time they were just starting up a program at UNC where the Special Forces medic instructors were working at the burn center. And we started getting mentorship in professional medicine and learning, you know, how to go through the application process, learning how to kind of integrate ourselves into medical and academic culture.
RATH: With the help of that and another UNC program specifically for veterans, Eric finished his undergrad degree, got a killer score on his MCAT and is just a couple of weeks away from finishing his first year of medical school. He says there's a lot to adjust to when it comes to noncombat medicine.
STRAND: You know, Special Forces training is a mile wide and an inch deep. We have to learn a little about a lot. So kind of diving into the depth of what's there, you start really appreciating how wonderful and beautiful the human organism is.
RATH: Eric Strand represents the dream. He enters the Army as a high school dropout and leaves on track to become a doctor. But what about the people he served with? He says some have been able to find government or security contracting jobs but for many it has been a struggle.
STRAND: Unfortunately, a lot of people do feel like they're kind of shortchanged when it comes to their experiences in trying to get some sort of credentialing or credit for it. And that's kind of the ongoing struggle of veterans to say, you know, I've invested this entire large period of my life into this career and now I don't have a whole lot to show for it that I can put on paper.
RATH: Derek Bennett of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America worries that many veterans might end up taking jobs well below their skill levels.
BENNETT: A question that no one's been able to answer yet is, are the - you know, jobs that veterans are getting, are they appropriate? Is there an issue of underemployment, which is to say, you know, it's one thing to get a job as an investment banker at J.P. Morgan Chase. It's quite a different thing to get a job as a greeter at Wal-Mart.
RATH: Researchers like Chris Cate are starting to gather the data that will help determine how much the government's investment in education is paying off in actual jobs for veterans. But veterans groups say there's no time to lose. As troops continue to withdraw from Afghanistan, applicants for GI Bill money will increase. And in today's budget environment it will be difficult to ask for billions more if there's no evidence the programs really works.
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RATH: This is NPR News.