This is what the end of a decade of war looked like in Oklahoma a few weeks ago: ex-soldiers in cheap new business suits; human resources managers with salesman smiles and stacks of glossy fliers; a former Marine speaking to a television news crew about the “tough times” and “nightmares” he has had since coming home.
Capt. Mike Bolton moved through the hundreds gathered at the convention center with a black binder of 41 résumés. It was yet another veterans’ job fair. How many had he been to since his battalion returned from Afghanistan last spring? Twenty? Thirty? Bolton’s job is to help his fellow Army National Guard soldiers find careers after their combat tours. “If you want bodies,” he tells potential employers over and over, “I am the person you need to call.”
Everyone says they want to hire veterans. Big U.S. firms have pledged through the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to hire more than 200,000 over the next five years. Congress has delivered tax credits worth as much as $5,600 to any business willing to hire an unemployed veteran — $9,600 if the vet is disabled.
President Obama has made the moral case. “No one who fights for this country overseas should ever have to fight for a job,” he said as he laid a wreath in Arlington National Cemetery last fall.
Here in Oklahoma, Bolton knows better. When hiring managers flip through his binder of résumés, they aren’t thinking about whether the nation has an obligation to its combat veterans. They are weighing whether they can really afford to take on one more employee in this uncertain economy, whether it makes sense to wait just a few more months.
The questions that consume Bolton, meanwhile, are specific to a population of ex-soldiers struggling with a particular set of postwar problems. How can he help a solid Guard captain with a forgettable résuméshine? How does he find a job for a 35-year-old soldier who can’t remember to pay her electricity bill? What can he do to help a soldier hold on to his job when he says he came home from combat “hating humanity”?
Each of these questions is, in its own way, a legacy of America’s wars.
‘I am going to give you a gift’
At first, Bolton didn’t think it would be hard to find work for Guard soldiers. He knew that the unemployment rate for post-Sept. 11 veterans was high — 9.4 percent in February, compared with 7.7 percent for the general population, according to the Labor Department. But Oklahoma’s oil and gas sector was booming.
Elsewhere Americans were weary of the wars, but in Oklahoma, support for the 45th Brigade seemed strong. The unit suffered 14 deaths in Afghanistan during a tough stretch of fighting in the fall of 2011. Each of the losses was covered on local television news and mourned in moments of silence at high school football games. When the brigade came home in the spring, cheering, hooting, whistling crowds were there. “I just can’t tell you how proud we are of you,” the governor said.
Eleven months later, the cheering over, the war back to being an afterthought, Bolton invited Capt. Monte Johnson, 35, to lunch to talk about his job search. Johnson was still wearing his black pinstripe suit from a morning hiring fair. He was a solid officer with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. In November, his commanders had selected him to lead a 99-soldier artillery battery.
But there was little about him that grabbed employers’ attention. “It’s a huge issue for soldiers,” Bolton said. “He’s done so much in Afghanistan, but he can’t make employers see it.” Johnson’s college degree was in sociology. “It’s not something that employers value,” said a state career counselor who looked over his résumé. His work experience outside the Guard was thin.
On those rare occasions when he landed an interview, he scoured the company’s Web site for three to five facts that he could work into the discussion. The tip had come from the Army’s Transition Assistance Program, a five-day career-counseling workshop for soldiers returning from active duty. Johnson volunteered to go through the program twice.
“I think he wants it so bad that he is overanalyzing everything,” Bolton said.
Johnson has thick, black hair cropped close to his head, military style. He has put on a little weight since coming back from the war. As he took a call from his wife, Bolton began hatching a plan for the afternoon that definitely wasn’t in any of the Transition Assistance Program PowerPoint briefs. A friend had mentioned that the Boy Scouts of America had an entry-level job open in Oklahoma City. Bolton stepped away to make a call. Five minutes later, he was back.
“Are you ready for this?” he asked.
“Ready for what?” Johnson replied.
“An interview,” Bolton said.