Attitudes, PTSD Complicate Iraq Vet's Job Search When Steve Kraft returned to work after serving in Iraq, he had trouble concentrating. He didn't immediately realize it, but it was a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. Now unemployed due to a corporate reorganization, Kraft is once again looking for work.
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Attitudes, PTSD Complicate Iraq Vet's Job Search

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Attitudes, PTSD Complicate Iraq Vet's Job Search

Attitudes, PTSD Complicate Iraq Vet's Job Search

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

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

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

On 9/11, the day the World Trade Center was attacked, a New Yorker named Steve Kraft called his mother to say he was safe. And in the shock and chaos of that day he told her he'd come to a big decision.

Mr. STEVE KRAFT (U.S. Army Veteran): I said it looks like I'm joining the Army. She said, Steven, don't do anything stupid. That's what she says to me. I said okay, mom. And I was, you know, a month later raising my right hand, swearing the oaths of enlistment. So I don't think I did anything stupid. I know - I know I didn't do anything stupid.

WERTHEIMER: This week, to mark Veterans Day, we're telling stories about soldiers who sign up, serve in Iraq, come home and try to get back to their lives. The people we'll meet do not have physical injuries but are hurt or just changed in other ways.

Steve Kraft is out of the Army now but can't find the one thing he needs to get his life back on track - a job.

NPR's Joseph Shapiro picks up this story.

(Soundbite of plane)

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: When Steve Kraft came home from Iraq, he moved to an isolated part of Brooklyn by the docks. It's the neighborhood he jokes that most reminds him of Baghdad. There are buildings that sag. There's enough street crime to keep you on alert.

Mr. KRAFT: You know, it felt like it would have been a place that was cut off from the rest of New York, and I was kind of looking for a place to get cut off from the rest of New York, I guess.

(Soundbite of VFW hall)

SHAPIRO: One place Kraft feels most welcome is the cozy BFW hall.

Mr. KRAFT: Sal, how are you?

Unidentified Man #1: Take care.

SHAPIRO: It's morning, and the bar's already lively. The regulars have come to drink, watch TV and play cards.

Unidentified Man #2: Oy, give me something, Ducky.

SHAPIRO: In a backroom, Steve Kraft taps his foot nervously.

Mr. KRAFT: You know, I don't know why I'm, you know, sitting here having this conversation, but I don't like being an unemployed Iraq veteran. That sure as hell isn't what I envisioned myself two years ago.

SHAPIRO: The older veterans in the bar fought in World War II, Korea, Vietnam. There were jobs in this neighborhood when Gerard Tweedy(ph) came from Korea.

Mr. GERARD TWEEDY (U.S. Army Veteran): I got a job on the waterfront. Made a living - a good living. Once you knew somebody who controlled the neighborhood, you got a job right away, if you was the right person.

SHAPIRO: Today, young veterans 20 to 24 years old and just out of the military have one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, double the national rate.

Steve Kraft's older. He's 34. He's finding out employers often don't know what to make of the job experience people get in the military. They see veterans through stereotypes, like they just follow orders, they don't take initiative. One reason for these attitudes: today members of the military make up less the one percent of the population.

Mr. KRAFT: I have yet to interview somebody with military experience. When you look at the, you know, who it is that's in business or what generation might be doing the recruiting, military service is rare.

SHAPIRO: Kraft's resume plays up his experience as an infantry man in the 82nd Airborne, things like how he'd rush to the scene of a suicide bombing and try to bring order of the dead and the dying.

Mr. KRAFT: You know, it's like I went away to this great leadership school. You know, I learned that in an environment that's chaotic and ever-shifting I function really well and at a very high level. And you know, you don't learn that sitting in a desk in corporate America so much.

SHAPIRO: Before 9/11, before he joined the Army, Steve Kraft did sit behind a desk. He worked in human resources at MTV Networks. He says he got promoted four times in three years. When he came home, he said he had to remind the company that a federal law required it to hold a job for a returning veteran. That legal right goes back to World War II, when everybody knew someone in the military. Today, it's a kind of forgotten law.

A spokeswoman for MTV says the company did create a new job for Kraft, but things went sour when Kraft met his new boss, a woman about his age.

Mr. KRAFT: I'd walk into our office and first thing she says, so I heard you were in Iraq. I don't want to hear about it, I'm a pacifist.

SHAPIRO: To Steve Kraft it was a putdown of his military service.

Mr. KRAFT: Because I work for this woman and then how am I supposed to respect what she tells me to do when she made it perfectly, abundantly clear that she didn't respect me in what I did.

SHAPIRO: Kraft says before he went to war, he managed benefits for hundreds of employees. So he openly resented it when his boss had him making copies and booking conference rooms.

But it's not just employers that can be unwelcoming. Sometimes it's the veteran who struggles to fit in. At least a third of Iraq's vets come home with posttraumatic stress disorder or milder problems adjusting to everyday life. Steve Kraft is one of them.

Mr. KRAFT: There are times at work where I would go to work and not realize that I was at work all day. You know, I would just lose focus.

SHAPIRO: Only later would he understand that as a symptom of PTSD. After nine months, Kraft was laid off when MTV Networks reorganized. He got a generous severance package. Since then, Kraft has gone to the VA for therapy and medication to control his PTSD. It can be managed, just like millions of other workers who rely on therapy and drugs for depression and others mental health issues.

(Soundbite of job fair)

SHAPIRO: Last week, Kraft went to a job fair in New York for veterans.

Unidentified Man #3: We're looking for firefighters, EMTs, paramedics, fire alarm dispatchers, building inspectors. Starting salary is 36,000, meal money, clothing allowance, and all this other stuff. I mean, it's a great opportunity. In the military...

SHAPIRO: Kraft in a suit and carrying a leather briefcase handed out his resume. He left feeling optimistic.

Mr. KRAFT: Things have been turning around. I met a number of people. There was a lot of interest in me working in a human resources capacity.

SHAPIRO: He's done what job counselors say to do. He's looked for jobs that build on his experience in human resources or where he thinks his military experience would pay off, like managing a construction site.

Mr. KRAFT: It's got a military feel to it. I love seeing things as they take shape. The skeleton, just watching it go up, it's just the opposite of what I saw when I was in combat. You know, watching something grow from the ground instead of showing up on something that would - had just been bombed.

SHAPIRO: He makes a little money doing carpentry jobs. Still, it was a humiliation the last month when he had to give up his modest apartment in Brooklyn and move in with his father on Long Island.

It's weird to sleep in his boyhood bedroom with his old posters of sports cars still on the wall. Strange too to be in the house without his mom, who died while he was in the Army. So he keeps looking for work.

Mr. KRAFT: You know, there have been times where I just sit down and think, just you know what, come on, just give me a job, after what I've done, after what I've been through.

SHAPIRO: What should and where do - how do you treat somebody like Steve Kraft the right way when they come back?

Mr. KRAFT: If somebody in some position of power were to hear this, they're interviewing somebody and say, all right, man, he seemed a little intense, but you know, maybe that makes sense. All of his answers were great. Let's bring him in for another interview, and let's just, let's just get him in there.

SHAPIRO: Steve Kraft knows things can turn around if he just gets the right job interview. He's got four lined up over the next several days.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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