Veterans fresh from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are being hit hard by the reality of the current economy and the competition for jobs. The financial prospects for vets younger than 30 can be especially daunting.
Many are trying for the first time to translate their military skills into the marketable experience civilian employers are seeking.
Limited By An Injury
Kevin Miracle, 30, has seen a lot. He served 10 years in the Army after enlisting when he was just 17. During that time, he did two tours in Iraq and two in Afghanistan. Since he got out in September, life has not been easy.
"When you're over there, you don't realize how bad things have gotten at home," Miracle says. "Getting out and finding a job was so hard. I couldn't get a job anywhere."
The former staff sergeant spent eight hours a day looking for work, but with no offers, he felt like he'd been demoted to a "private" in the civilian world.
"I literally filled out an application at McDonald's," he says. "And they told me I was over-qualified, thank you for your service. But, I mean, I would clean toilets, do what I had to do to pay my bills."
Miracle posted his bio on Craigslist and got a job at the Philadelphia Veterans Multi-Service and Education Center. As an intake counselor, he helps evaluate the housing and employment needs of vets who are coming into the center for the first time.
"Don't worry about these first two pages — here, these are for your case manager, for client notes," Miracle tells a vet. "Just fill it out — what pertains to you — to the best of your ability."
Miracle is planning to go to college to get a degree in social work so he can help other returning vets. But like many of them, he's limited in what he can do because of an injury. He points to a scar on the palm of his hand.
"It was a Coke can with a little IED under it — improvised explosive device," he says.
Miracle knows his challenges are not unique, or by far the worst.
Unemployment 'Much Worse For Veterans'
Kathy Salerno has seen many of them. She has been working with vets for 18 years at the same center. She says many vets like Miracle have a hard time marketing their skills.
"What we would like it to equate to is equal to the important role he played in the military in intelligence," Salerno says. "But when he came back, what that equated to probably is a high-paid security guard. And it's really sad and disappointing because these people held such vitally important jobs."
Veterans' advocates say gaining new skills is key. But in this job market, even vets who seem to do everything right can end up struggling.
"I started my job search in November," says Erin Lloyd, a Navy vet. "I've applied to a lot — 50 jobs, maybe more. They actually said I didn't have enough experience."
Lloyd, 26, has an easy-going smile and an accounting degree from Rutgers University. She has maintained her New Jersey apartment with a part-time job, and says the discipline she learned as a military policewoman should be appealing to potential employers.
"When I was in that job for those five years, the training is unbelievable," she says. "I mean, you're at a job 24 hours a day, 365 days a year."
Many potential employers don't understand the valuable experience vets bring to the job, says Tim Embree. He's a legislative associate with the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
"Thing is, a lot of folks don't understand unemployment has been bad for everybody, but it's been much worse for veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan," Embree says.
At Erin Lloyd's apartment, piles of boxes illustrate her new strategy: She's moving back in with her parents in Florida. Her mom, Jody Miller, has come to help.
"She's a great worker, very determined — military was great for her," Miller says. "I'm just excited to get her back to Florida and get her working."
Lloyd is looking forward to a career in accounting, financial independence and moving back out of her parents' home.