A Job to Kill For? Unemployed Spurn Detroit Veteran Hiring Fair

Detroit is hungry for work, and so are veterans, yet a job fair there for them is expected to have two positions offered for every person who shows up seeking work, reports Colby Buzzell.

John Moore / Getty Images

In the military, they say the best training is under the most hellish conditions. That way, when you encounter the real thing, you’re prepared for the worst and know what to do.

Perhaps that’s why the Department of Veterans Affairs is throwing a huge hiring fair this week in Detroit.

The unemployment rate in Michigan is double the national average, and it leads the country in its unemployment rate among post–Sept. 11 veterans. Nearly half of the adults in Detroit don’t work. And more than 10 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are unemployed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while a survey by the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America shows an even grimmer picture, with more than 17 percent of its members reporting that they are out of work.

Despite all this, employers will be in Detroit to do their best to give nearly 25,000 jobs located nationwide to veterans, regardless of if they’ve ever been deployed. This is in part because of a newly expanded tax credit for employers who go out of their way to “hire our heroes.”

Just 5,000 people have registered, and the VA is optimistically anticipating that 10,000 will show up—which means there will be well more than twice as many jobs offered as job seekers.

There’ve been rumors that President Obama might show up, but that seems less likely given the dispirting numbers. I'll be there regardless, not looking for a job but to report on the event for The Daily Beast.

Work is being doled out that veterans from previous wars would have—no pun intended—fought and killed for.

You name the minimum-wage job, I’d worked it before enlisting: busboy, cashier, data enterer, car washer, flower-delivery guy, and on down the line. Working as a valet parker, a guy once slipped in my hand as a tip a coupon for a free milkshake if I bought a burger at some local diner. I don’t recall ever finishing a shift when I didn’t say to myself, “You know what, there has got to be more to life than this.” But I’d done horribly in high school, and even these jobs were hell to land; many I had to pretty much beg for.

Then Sept. 11 happened, the war drums started banging, and word spread that the United States military was now hiring. I quit my job and enlisted in the Army.

For many veterans, including me, the war was the best thing that ever happened to us. It provided purpose and perhaps the best job we’ll ever have.

During the war people would sometimes come up to me, especially if I was in uniform, to verbally thank me for my service. “I support the troops, but not the war,” some of them would tell me. I’d look at the person mouthing that and see someone who’d tip me a coupon or reject me for an entry-level position at Chuck E. Cheese’s. In other words, someone who didn’t think too highly of me beforehand.

The Iraq War is over, and the one in Afghanistan is ending—and I wonder if those people will keep supporting the troops now that we’re back home and competing for their jobs.

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Recently on a park bench by the Vietnam Wall, not far from the White House and the main office for the Department of Veterans Affairs—the agency in charge of getting vets back to work—I sat next to and chatted with a vet who told me that after three tours in Vietnam, he came home and handed his résumé to a dozen civilian employers. Every one turned him down. At one interview, he said, a woman looked at his résumé and cut to the chase: “Sorry, we don’t hire Vietnam veterans.” He stopped listing his military experience and never uttered a word about it during an interview or on the job after that. He was better off, it seemed, with a years-long gap in his job record in place of his service.

Today, I tell him, veterans are encouraged to tout our service in the military and deployments overseas—this is supposed to add to our employability.

“There might be a push to hire our veterans,” he says, “but what if there’s no jobs?” He paused. “Then what happens? I think you guys got it harder.”


Bill Mauldin once said, “The infantry is the group in the Army which gives more and gets less than anybody else.” Right before I signed my contract, my recruiter pulled me aside and asked if I was sure about being in the infantry. He told me that there was no civilian job equivalent for infantrymen, and it would be a wise to pick a job where I could learn a skill so that I’d be employable once I got out.

Why would I want to do that? If I wanted a job, I’d work a job. If I wanted to join the military during a war, what better way to experience that than in the infantry? Jobs are temporary; glory is forever. I told him thanks, but not interested.

“OK,” he sighed, “I tried.”

Thanks to the war, I was among the 1.6 million people who had a job as we rotated through Iraq and Afghanistan on behalf of the military. Now, my honorable-discharge certificate is framed and hangs above my desk.

Curious to see what that certificate could do for me now, I went online and checked out the U.S. Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration’s “Veterans ReEmployment” site, “your one-stop site for employment.” The site boasts a military-to-civilian job-search feature that, if you type in your MOS (military occupation), tells you what jobs are available for you.

“Sorry, we didn’t find a direct civilian career match for ‘Infantryman-Army-Enlisted 11B.’”

I pressed on.

There are zero “job listings that use similar skills as Infantryman,” the site told me. ”But the specific skills, teamwork, and discipline you gained in the military are valued in many civilian jobs.”

My job over there was to “locate, capture, and kill all anti-Iraqi forces.”

Over there, we spent long hours thinking about home. A couple of my platoon mates used to joke around, flinging lines from Rambo at each other:

“Nothing is over! Nothing! For me civilian life is nothing! In the field we had a code of honor, you watch my back, I watch yours. Back here there’s nothing! Back there I could fly a gunship, I could drive a tank, I was in charge of million-dollar equipment. Back here I can’t even hold a job parking cars!”

Instead of parking cars, I sat out this Great Recession and am using my Post-9/11 GI Bill to obtain the college diploma that seemed out of reach after high school. I’m not sure a bachelor’s degree still represents a ticket into the middle class, but I’ll find out soon enough. And when I do, I’ll be debt-free, thanks to Uncle Sam footing the full bill for my education.

Meanwhile, the money that I receive from the GI Bill barely covers my expenses. Every month I make less than zero, and to make up for that I needed a job just to survive. I told the campus employment office that I was an Iraq War veteran and detailed my prior work experience. They said there were pizza-delivery and dishwasher positions available.

The same damn jobs I scrambled to find and hold before I raised my right hand and swore to defend our Constitution against both enemies foreign and domestic, “so help me God.”