Special ReportThe New Illinois Veterans

Unemployment, Benefit Delays Among Many Challenges for Returning Veterans

By Brianna Kelly
@RedLineProject

Posted: Friday, Jan. 31, 2014

Post-9/11 veterans have more resources available than past generations of veterans, but transitioning back into civilian life has been difficult because of delayed benefits and high unemployment, according to a Wounded Warrior Project employment specialist.

The overwhelming amount of soldiers returning from combat -- 2.5 million throughout the past 13 years -- has created a backlog in the Veterans Affairs system and delayed medical and education benefits. A 2013 report showed that 245,000 veterans wait a year or more for the VA assistance they are owed for their service.

“A lot of ways, being in the military is very easy because you know exactly what your focus is,” said Joe Franzese, a third-generation Marine who now works as an employment specialist for the Wounded Warrior Project. “Once you get into the swing of things, it’s a very easy way of life. You have one job and that’s it. But, coming back home and just not having that whole structure is just challenging itself.”

Although many soldiers are welcomed home from the Middle East by a support system of loved ones, they also return to an economy that still suffers from relatively high unemployment rates. The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that the national unemployment rate decreased to 6.7 percent, some economists estimate it to be 8.2 percent or higher, after factoring in inflation.

An estimated 246,000 post-9/11 veterans, or 10 percent, are currently unemployed due to disability, inadequate civilian work experience and lack of government programs to aid in the transition, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Franzese, who served during Operation Iraqi Freedom, said he believes there are more benefits available to veterans today, but there’s less understanding of the war due to the lack of media coverage. Several organizations were formed specifically to bridge the gap and provide the necessary support post-9/11 veterans need to adjust into the civilian workforce.

“[During] World War II […] the entire country was for the war and knew the war was going on,” Franzese said. “[With] Vietnam, the entire country still knew the war was going on, but they saw it every night on their TVs.

“Those veterans were welcomed home differently than nowadays. But, nowadays it feels like the war is going on but nobody back home even realizes it.”

Joe Franzese Photo

 Joe Franzese talks about challenges post-9/11 veterans face when they return from Iraq and Afghanistan.
(Photo/Pari Cruz)

The Wounded Warrior Project, a 10-year-old nonprofit service organization, aims to “honor and empower” veterans who have been physically or mentally injured through combat. It offers 19 different programs that focus on different aspects of empowerment, according to Franzese, including a wide variety of economic, finance, family rehabilitation services.

As the Warriors to Work special for the organization’s North-Central region, Franzese provides employment and career assistance to 160 participating veterans throughout six states. He forms ongoing professional relationships with the veterans and helps them prepare for all aspects of a job search, including help with resumes and interviews.

Although he has only been in the position for four months, he has already helped 10 veterans find work.

Despite the many challenges presented to them after service, many veterans don’t regret their commitment, Franzese said.

“Being in the military, being in the Marine Corps … made me who I am,” he said. “So, in retrospect, yes I would [do] it again and I’d go back and fight any war now if I had to as well.”

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