The Hero Project

07.01.12

In the Shit: Despite Noble Effort, Jobs and Vets Elude Each Other in Detroit

Only a handful of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans found their way to a job fair intended for them, reports Colby Buzzell.

Eight years after returning from Iraq and leaving the U.S. Army, the Detroit Veteran Hiring Fair held last week felt something like coming home.

With 25,000 jobs offered and employers hoping to fill many of them on the spot, in part to collect a tax credit for “hiring our heroes,” the event at Cobo Center in downtown Detroit was the largest ever put on by the Department of Veterans Affairs and attracted every kind of veteran you can imagine among the 5,000 or 6,000 who came in search of work. Some are in military uniform, others in business attire or dressed more casually, and a few look homeless. Almost all of them are too old to have served in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Yet more than 10 percent of veterans of those wars are unemployed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. People correctly say there’s a disconnect that exists within the 1 percent of the population who serve and the rest of society—but within that 1 percent is another disconnect. Hardly anyone I see is over three days at the job fair is among the 18- to 24-year-old veterans who were deployed—a staggering 29 percent of whom are out of work.

I wonder: where are they?

Even among those who are deployed, there’s still another split, between those who have served in the combat arms—in jobs that have no civilian equivalent—and officers and support positions that translate more easily.

But a veteran is a veteran is a veteran, right? Heroes, the lot of us.

The head of the Department of Veterans Affairs, retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki, is there to promote event, and tells NPR about PTSD—half the soldiers returning from our new wars report the condition—“I think that’s an issue ... [that] involves a small percentage of our veteran population.” Everyone has a bit of trauma, he says, but it rarely rises to a disorder.

The fair is an impressive operation, methodically brilliant, as when the military mobilizes a large number of individuals for overseas combat. When the doors open Tuesday morning, the media looks on as the soldiers pour in. There’s even a handful of generals pacing around wearing multiple stars on their shoulders, assessing the field. Inside, there are free workshops intended to help us leave with a job: a professional who will school you for an hour on how to interview—what to say, how to say it, what to wear, and what not to wear. From there, there’s a résumé workshop, to be sure you’re putting your military service in the best-possible light.

A sea of VA employees are eager to help—I’m asked a dozen times if I need help or if I’m aware of all the benefits available to veterans.

A few vets found jobs in the first hour of the three-day event, and by noon the VA reported 2,000 job interviews.

“Today is all about you!” a Navy vet tells us at one workshop. “Our mission today is for as many veterans as possible to get hired.”

He asks how many of us have been out for more than 10 years. Nearly all the hands raise.

Later, I spot a man who’s clean-cut and built like a compact tank who looks to be in his mid-30s, around my age. He’s wearing the same kind of military assault backpack I that I have and sewn onto the back of his bag is the 172nd Combat patch, airborne wings, and a Combat Infantry Badge. 

As we shake hands, I tell him I’m also a combat vet and have a CIB. His handshake tightens, and his smile widens. It’s like I’ve just ran into a friend I haven’t seen in a while. He tells me he’s sticking around for the résumé workshop.

“It’s a job, but I have a wife and a daughter. I have a mortgage, I have a car. I can’t afford an $8 job.”

“This is really important. Translating my military experience into the civilian world is hard,” Marc tells me. “Being infantry, there’s no job equivalent out there ... There are no jobs for people who jump out of planes and engage the enemy. There is nothing that is anything close.”

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do in civilian life,” he says. After leaving the Army in 2008, he took advantage of his Post-9/11 GI Bill and enrolled in community college.

“Why would I join the military to be a truck driver?” Marc says. “I would have gone ahead and drove trucks. I wanted to join the military for the experience, for the thrills, I don’t know—finding something—and a part of that for me was going combat arms.”

I asked him if he regrets that choice now that he’s home. He says the same thing I’ve heard from every other infantryman who’s been in the shit: “No.”

I wished him luck, and he gave me a copy of his résumé. On paper, this guy was me. Not only did we have the same exact job in the Army—M-240 machine gunner—but we both just had some college on our résumés and a love of writing. His topic of choice was cars: writing about them, working on them, detailing them, everything about them.

The next morning I went to the booth of one of the car companies.

I told the guy working that I was in the infantry and highly interested in their company. “Great!” he tells me. The company is accepting résumés and looking for people with four-year degrees, specifically engineering or IT degrees. For the rest of us, there are “some opportunities coming up.” I should consult their website.

I try again, at another company’s booth, where a representative is reading the résumé of a young female veteran, peppering her with questions: “What kind of job are you looking for? What experience do you have? What’d you do in the Army? So you’d be willing to do something on the line?”

“Yes!”

I find out that the she was a combat medic in the Army and was deployed to the Middle East.

“I know I had a hard time when I came back trying to find a job,” she tells me. “I have a job now, but I’m looking for an improvement. People here seem so positive and want to really hire veterans. I feel pretty confident.”

As the conversation dies off, she tells me she’s working as a custodian now. She got the job though friends, “nothing to do with my job in the military.”

Later, I get my turn, and the same questions.

“I love cars, especially yours,” I tell her. “I don’t care if it’s a janitorial position ... I want nothing more than to get my foot in the door to a company that I love, so I can work my way up.”

I was directed to a website, toyotahireahero.com, where “independently owned ... [company] dealerships are interested in providing job opportunities to military service men and women.”

I walked off and came across a Navy veteran around my age, wearing a suit, who looked like he still had some fight in him.

“It’s been a little tough,” he said. “They said bring 35 résumés, and I brought 50. And half of the people here don’t want your résumé, they want you to go to their website, and it’s difficult. That’s all.”

He continued: “You know there’s a pizza place here, and they’re offering a franchise for $300,000. If I had that kind of money, I wouldn’t be here. And Lowe’s is here, Big Boy is here, and Big Boy wants you to start in their restaurant for minimum wage, and it’s a job, but I have a wife and a daughter. I have a mortgage, I have a car. I can’t afford an $8 job. I’m not trying to be rude, but I can’t take an $8-an-hour job.

“I’m not just out of high school. I’m not trying to work my way through college. I’m 40 years old with a family.”

I began to feel depressed.

“So, how do you get by, man?”

“My wife works, and my VA disability checks.”

Now I am depressed.

A big guy wearing a modest suit, folder full of résumés under one arm and carrying his luggage in the other, walks slowly past us taking everything in. He looks like he’s just been dropped off in the middle of Times Square for the first time.

I introduce myself. He’s from Indiana, and the reason he’s here today is because his mother heard about this event and paid for him to get out here. He’s done three combat deployments, two to Iraq and one to Afghanistan, all of them as an infantrymen. He’s soft-spoken, and there’s a kindness and calmness to him—he comes off as a really good guy, the sort you’d wish your sister would date.

“Honestly, being here today was a big step for me. I’m used to just keeping to myself.”

His last tour was hard, he tell me, so he reached out to the VA for help and got it.

“It took me a while to get to this point, and before I left to come here I left a message with my therapist telling her thanks and that I was here. She’s going to be proud of me that I made it here.”

He’d just come from what he said was a very promising job interview for a management position working construction and, although still slightly overwhelmed by the enormity of the job fair, felt highly optimistic.

“A lot of people have been friendly, helpful, point you in the right direction, and I feel more comfortable in this environment than I do just walking into an employer’s office and trying to explain myself to some civilian who knows nothing about the military,” he said. “This is a great opportunity for vets, probably the best opportunity I’ve seen.”

Back home he goes to school full time on the GI Bill, and “I get a little bit of disability. I’m struggling, but I’m getting by.”

Looking over his résumé, he guides my eyes to the top. It’s all bullet points, and nothing that I recognize as military related. He didn’t put down fire team leader, or squad leader, but “team management.” And since one of his jobs in the Infantry was to train others, “we did time management, service orientation, PowerPoint presentations, operational risk management, and performance evaluation—I wrote a few consulting statements and after action reviews.

“It’s all there really, just translated into civilian words.”

Throughout the fair, a video played with President Obama on loop:

“When our fellow citizens commit themselves to shed blood for us, that binds our fates with theirs in a way that nothing else can, and in the end, caring for those who have given their fullest measure of devotion to us, for their families ... is a matter of honor. We will fulfill our sacred trust and serve our returning heroes as well as they have served us. Thank you.”

NPR asks Shinseki why, with the resources dedicated to veterans, the unemployment rate for them remains so high. It’s the right question to ask at an event where jobs outnumbered job seekers by perhaps 5 to 1.

“I don’t know that we know enough about this,” he says. “We know that the numbers are the way they are. But a number of programs … seek to address that.” He mentions the GI Bill, which I’m using to get my degree.

Bottom line, says the man tasked with the problem: “I don’t know that anybody has an answer.”

I thought about rock bottom and what happens to us then.

So I left the fair for a while and headed to a totally-bombed-out neighborhood, Cass Corridor, to visit the Detroit’s veterans homeless shelter.

The guy working there told me a couple Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were staying there, but they were at the job fair and for me to come back later when they served dinner.

I did, and we had chicken and baked beans. Not bad. The cafeteria had that prison sterility to it. I ended up eating at a table with three vets: one who’d served in Vietnam, one in the Gulf War, and one in peacetime. Everyone around me was wearing some article of patriotic clothing, an American flag shirt, a POW-MIA logo, or something identified with the military.

I scanned the room for someone my age.

“What are you looking for?” the Vietnam veteran asked. I told him someone my age who’d served in Iraq or Afghanistan.

“Don’t worry,” he says. “They ain’t here now, but they will be.”