It was 7:30 in the morning and I was suffering from both jet lag and a terrible gin hangover but I was still thankful to be back in the United States. I hadn’t slept, afraid that I would awake again in the desert. Cheering the sunrise, my unit began the redeployment process, and mine began with this meeting at this ungodly hour. While in Iraq, my eight-year contract had expired and was unceremoniously extended so that I could complete my 18-month tour of duty. Amazingly, the first person who wanted to meet with me upon my return home was not a doctor or a veterans affairs representative, but instead the local retention sergeant with a mind to discuss my future with the military. Staff Sergeant Williams sat across from me, his dark complexion sharply contrasting his eerily white Cheshire Cat smile. His uniform was brand-new and immaculately pressed. Obnoxious jewelry adorned his fingers and wrists, a clear reminder that I was back in the States and no longer in the sights of snipers. I considered reenlistment while in Iraq. I would have received in the range of a $15,000 bonus for signing, paying no taxes due to Iraq’s combat zone designation, but I passed on the offer without a moment’s hesitation. Yet, Sergeant Williams believed that his pitch was so smooth that I would be unable to pass on the opportunity before me. It was pointless; I had stars in my eyes and knew that there were companies out there just waiting to hire a war-vet with a good work ethic. I was sadly mistaken.
While the current national rate of unemployment is hovering at 9.7% , the figures are higher within the community of veterans, specifically at 11.2% for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. When I weighed the decision of re-enlisting in the first weeks of 2006, the national unemployment rate hovered at about 4.7%; today young veterans face even greater challenges in finding gainful employment. According to a human resources employee with a recruiting firm in Pittsburgh, PA who spoke on condition of anonymity, “I hate to say this, but veterans, especially ‘young’ veterans are considered risky hires.” With numerous cases of mental distress in the years following the war and the military’s inability to adequately screen and treat these cases, this alone might cause reticence to hire veterans.
The time spent in the military can also play against the veteran searching for work, especially if the depth of their experience was limited to combat-related tasks. “A 23 year-old with a degree and relevant internship experience is just a better fit for us than someone with no degree and experience that does not apply to what we [want].” The main argument against veterans’ education benefit reform was that it would hurt retention. Is this because these soldiers are no longer pigeon-holed into a solely military career? With the post-9/11 GI Bill program just beginning, veterans may be able to win more competitive jobs, especially as the country climbs back from recession.
A recession is technically defined as two quarters of negative GDP growth, but many Americans in the middle-class and below saw this recession coming long before it was official. A number of men and women I served with reenlisted in the Reserves with the option to go active while still in Iraq – remarkably they were all in the mortgage and real estate businesses in their civilian lives; well aware that the market was not where it had been when they left. Once at home, we veterans found that we had an uphill battle when it came to finding a civilian position that could compete with the salary and benefits offered by the military. The Air Force, for example, usually does not spend as much time in-theater as long as some of the other branches, yet airmen sometimes deploy more frequently. Juan Femath served for 12-and-a-half-years in the Air Force. When it came time for him to consider reenlisting he discussed it with his wife. “[We] did the prerequisite list of reasons to stay in, versus reasons to get out, and the only significant reason I had for staying in was retirement,” he told me. As an aerial combat videographer, he was able to transition into a civilian career that, even in good economic times, breaking into can be difficult. “I just couldn’t see myself doing a job I was no longer passionate about for another 8 years; and one that would put additional stress not only on my body and well-being, but more importantly on my wife and my marriage,” Juan says. Despite the benefits offered by retiring from the Air Force, Juan opted to risk entering the civilian workforce in an effort to ease the burden frequent separation caused his family.
The Navy and the Air Force have been consistently reaching the 90th percentile of their retention goals, while the Marines have achieved over 100% of their retention goal for the last five years. The Army has not failed to hit its retention goals for the past eleven years. In fact, the Army had decreased their goal for reenlistment by 10,500 troops mid-way through 2008. According to statistics found by Ben Shaw, a former marine and journalist reporting from Iraq (byshaw.com), “the [Army's] career retention budget jumped from about 173 million dollars in 2003 to well over a billion by 2007 .” Only $50 million was budgeted for reenlistment bonus in 1998, but that amount skyrocketed to $562 million in 2007. In a report provided by the Army to the media, the percentage of soldiers leaving the Army after the first Gulf War was twice as high as it is today. In 1992 a recession was ending and the economy was slowly improving, only growing by about 2% by the end of the fiscal year. The most recent report by the Bureau of Labor and Statistics shows the economy contracted by 5.7% in the first quarter of 2009 and by another percentage point during the second quarter. It’s no surprise that the Army is currently at 157% of its retention goals, but this success has caused them to drastically limit the options for retention.
By the end of 2008, the budget for bonuses had been cut by about $90 million, and the number of qualified military occupational specialties was reduced from 88 to 63. Even more recently the contracts are limited to only 24 months of service, whereas one must reenlist for three to six years to qualify for any signing bonus. These restrictions are temporary and will be lifted at the start of the new fiscal year. Still even without the bonuses, reenlistment means the continuation of a steady paycheck and an eventual pay raise. Worries about housing and health care are not gone, but not nearly as desperate as these concerns for the unemployed. Ben Shaw spoke to a soldier that upon discovering that his parents lost their home, reenlisted, volunteered to go to Iraq, and purchased a home. “If it wasn’t for the war, the Army, and this tour, my entire family would be living on the streets right now. There’s just no way to make any money in my hometown,” says the unnamed National Guardsman. With limited options in the civilian world – a place where there is no one to ensure that you are squared away – perhaps reenlistment is the best option for these men and women, troubled economy notwithstanding. For the majority of veterans I’ve spoken with, there are higher reasons for reenlisting such as love of country, sense of duty, and a feeling that the military is the right career for that individual. Although I will not fall into Sergeant Williams’s retention statistic, his job is much easier than when I met him three years ago.