Young veterans experience battlefield back at home

by Antonio Zaragoza

Gulf War-era II veterans prone to higher unemployment rates

Veterans who served on active duty since September 2001 have higher unemployment rates than veterans from previous wars, according to a report from the United Bureau of Labor Statistics. These veterans, referred to as “Gulf War-era II veterans” by the U.S. Department of Labor, had a 12.1 percent overall unemployment rate as of March 2012, disregarding gender, race and age.

This figure sits above the average national rate as well as the 7.9 percent average unemployment rate for all veterans. 26 percent of Gulf War-era II veterans have service- connected disabilities—almost twice as large as the national average for all veterans, which is 14 percent. One of the key findings in the report was the significant increase in unemployment rates among younger veterans. White Gulf War-era II veterans between 18- 24 years old faced an unemployment rate of 29.1 percent, more than three times the national average. Other demographics report even higher rates of unemployment. Black veterans of various age groups were twice as likely to be unemployed compared to white veterans of corresponding age groups.

Defining the current veteran populations: females and minorities

As of 2011, 21.6 million men and women make up the veteran population. About half of the total veteran population, 10.4 million people, consists of veterans from

WWII as well as the Korean and Vietnam wars. Of this group, most were men typically older than nonveterans. A total of 5.3 million veterans served during the 1990 Gulf War. An additional 2.4 million men and women served after September 2001.

Women served in much higher rates post 9/11 than any previous conflict in American history. There are currently 1.8 million female veterans in the U.S., making up 17 percent of Gulf War-era II veterans. This is an increase from 3 percent in WWII, Korean and Vietnam eras. Half of female service members who served after September 2001 are between the ages of 25 and 34. During WWII and Korea, women’s roles differed from recent conflicts such as the Gulf wars. During WWII for example, women took on secretarial or administrative jobs in the military or worked as nurses and caregivers to the wounded. Other roles closer to combat operations included supply, logistics and food preparation.

Recent Gulf War conflicts placed women in more forward positions on the battlefield than ever in history. For the first time, women found themselves working directly in hostile “combat” environments. Many women working in military police units or units directly supporting other combat units performed tasks that would otherwise only be carried out by men in combat units.

Following the first Gulf War, which spanned two years, women leaving active duty had a 6.3 percent unemployment rate. During WWII, Korea and Vietnam wars, the average was 7.9 percent. Gulf War II-era female veterans faced an even higher rate of 12.4 percent. The current unemployment rate for female nonveterans is 8.2 percent.

Minorities also had high unemployment rates compared to nonveterans of the same race. Gulf War-era I Latino or Hispanic veterans had an unemployment rate of 7.5 percent, more than doubling for Gulf War-era II Latino or Hispanic veterans at 17 percent. Asian Gulf War II-era veterans had a rate of 7.1 percent, while blacks 18 years and older had an unemployment rate of 14.3 percent.

Combat stress related injuries affect veterans

Gulf War-era II veterans served more time in combat areas than any other veteran group in history. A total of 38 percent of this group served in combat operation in Iraq, Afghanistan and in many cases, both. On average, a soldier fighting in WWII served two years on active duty. During the Korean and Vietnam wars, the average combat tour was one year. Gulf war-era II veterans serve an average of three years, with some serving as many as five combat tours. The stresses from prolonged periods in combat zones have had a toll on individuals deployed in combat zones, subjecting them to serious mental health issues. In April 2007, the RAND Corp. conducted a study exploring the high levels of post-traumatic stress disorders and traumatic brain injury instances for combat veterans. The study, called “Invisible Wounds of War,” found instances of severe depression, PTSD and TBI were “disproportionately high compared with the physical injuries of combat.”

Former Marine sergeant and social work graduate student Teresa Banko works with many veterans who have firsthand experiences in combat zones. She said veterans returning from tours overseas struggled to readjust back into their old lives and reconnect with loved ones because of the physical and mental stresses and injuries from combat.

“Many veterans don’t even know that anything’s wrong with them,” Banko said. “Men and women who didn’t drink before they went to combat drink daily now since they’ve returned. They’re depressed and many have guilt and hidden rage that often leads to suicidal thoughts.”

Banko said many veterans uphold a prevailing sense of denial that anything is wrong with them. Often, many individuals go months and sometimes years without being properly diagnosed and treated. As a result of feeling isolated and alone, many of these veterans slowly begin to detach from their social networks. For these individuals, finding jobs and keeping them becomes a great challenge.

The RAND study also determined one reason veterans with PTSD, TBI or severe depression don’t seek medical attention is because doing so often results in a delay returning home from service. Service members often deny having symptoms and forego treatment. In 2006, the Government Accountability Office conducted a study, which showed 23-40 percent of combat veterans identified with PTSD, TBI or depression sought treatment.

Since the drawdown of operations in Iraq, the Department of Defense and the VA “have come under congressional and public scrutiny regarding their capacity to address PTSD and TBI,” according to the

RAND study. The sheer number of veterans (1.63 million Gulf War-era II) causes severe difficulties in creating systems to diagnose and treat mental injuries. To date, there is no concrete data on how this issue affects long- term individual and societal costs. Veterans often face a reduced quality of life, lost productivity, homelessness, domestic violence and events of suicide associated with PTSD and TBI. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the total cost to treat Gulf War-era II veterans ranges from $69 billion and $85 billion. This amount, which represents 2010 dollars, is adjusted for inflation and increased medical treatment costs to 2020.

Troops to College advocate and Texas businessman Ed Blessing believes one way to curb high unemployment rates for veterans is to bring them into some type of education system. He said once there, the VA healthcare system should partner with the educational institutions and provide ongoing psychological services when needed.

“The economy is slowly rebounding, but not fast enough to incorporate the hundreds of thousands of men and women leaving the various services,” Blessing said. “We need to create viable partnerships between educational systems and the military to get them into school and off the unemployment rolls.”

Many young veterans struggle with finding work because of their age and lack of job skills. As President Barack Obama ends the war in Afghanistan, the nation should create systems to identify the needs of veterans and work to provide them with appropriate job training and educational programs.