As the last of the soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan return to their native New Hampshire, about one third will retire from the military for medical reasons. That means they’re likely to face one of their toughest battles yet as they search for meaningful employment.
Young military veterans are getting hit the hardest, with unemployment rates for 18 to 24 year-olds averaging as high as 30 percent.
Drive down Old Amherst Road in the dense woods of Mont Vernon, and you roll pass weathered farm stalls, red barns and sturdy tractors.
Through the occasional clearing, there’s a McMansion or two. Retired veteran Phillip Paquette doesn’t live in one of those. His home sits at the back of his mud-packed driveway where a few chickens bobble around the yard.
Paquette: We’ve got a cow, five pigs, and tomorrow where getting another 26 or 28 chickens or three more ducks.
A tranquil portrait perhaps — but far-removed from Paquette’s dangerous stint as a squad leader in Iraq almost a year ago.
Lately, Paquette’s been farming and taking care of his three kids.
Paquette walks with a slight limp. A serious ankle injury means he needs to find work that doesn’t require him to be on his feet.
The clock is ticking. The unemployment checks end this fall.
Paquette: I’ve been using all my savings up from when I was overseas to pay the mortgage, keep the kids fed. My biggest fear is that I may not be able to afford all this.
Paquette says most of the jobs he’s applied for don’t pay well. And he says what he learned in the military is not necessarily what employers want.
Paquette: A lot of the skills are really not transferrable. You’re not going to be carrying weapons around the state and shooting those off anywhere here. Unless you’re crazy (laughs).
Paquette says he worries a lot about his future. And like up to one-third of other post 9/11 vets, he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. He started to realize the warning signs a few months after he returned home.
Paquette: I couldn’t sleep. And loud noises and bright lights especially, really kind of bother you. I actually realized that when I first came home when my uncle brought me to a Moody Blues concert and I couldn’t deal with it. And yeah, in Iraq, all the IEDs are right there, so, you come home, you’re always looking to see if there’s something there, even though you know nothing’s going to be here, in this country.
Retired Army vet Drew Reeves had a similar experience after he returned to the States:
Reeves: When I heard something go boom, I was like, really looking everywhere I could. I still suffer from your routine flashbacks, always having to maintain a high vigilance, or as they call it, always being amped.
Reeves joined the army after high school and served for ten years. Before he medically retired, he was a long-range reconnaissance sniper.
Reeves: I was boarding a convoy when our convoy was hit by a vehicle-born IED, which flipped the vehicle I was in upside down, threw me headfirst into a wall. I was knocked unconscious and sent in a medivac to Kuwait for approximately 13 days.
Sheryl: That’s sound horrible.
Reeves:It wasn’t so bad. (laughs) I don’t remember any of it.
Like the tens of thousands of soldiers from Iraq who’ve been hit by bombs — Reeves survived. But not without the complicated effects of a traumatic brain injury, or TBI.
Reeves: I suffer from what’s called an ocular migraine. When I suffer a migraine, I wind up blind, for a temporary period, ranging anywhere from four hours to 24 hours.
Reeves says that in Iraq, he was flying around in helicopters and chasing bad guys. There were days when he first came home that he wanted to go back. Especially while he was looking for work and watching his savings dwindle.
Reeves: Being a sniper in the army, working in intelligence gathering – that didn’t have a lot to carry over.
In other words, Reeves says he wasn’t seeing tons of jobs for skilled shooters.
So he had to tweak his résumé.
Rather than emphasize his talent as a rifleman, he wrote about his leadership qualities.
After six months of no work, Reeves found a match at BAE in Nashua through its warrior integration program. BAE is an international defense company that makes military products like electronic warfare and night vision systems. It’s only logical a defense company that makes equipment that soldiers use would actively seek veterans. But BAE does more than that.
In 28 different offices around the country, the company trains post-911 disabled vets for new careers. Steve Gallerani manages the program in Nashua. He says the vets rotate in three different manufacturing jobs.
Gallerani: We make them solder stuff. We make them break stuff. We work on the floor so they understand how we build products. Then we expand out into a second or third role with some of the supply chain activities. And then their third rotation, we try to get them into maybe a supervisory role.
Gallerani says he also requires the vets to further their education. Among the 18 who’ve joined the program in Nashua since 2009, 14 remain with the company.
Chris Luszey is in his second rotation. He’s learning about the supply chain process.
Luszey: I was in the military for four years. I joined right after high school.
Sheryl: What motivated you to go into the military after high school?
Luszey: I was a slacker in high school. (laughs) Honestly. I was not a good student. So the military was a good area for me to save some money and get some focus on my life.
According to the Department of Labor, Luszey is part of a growing number of recruits who joined the army as teenagers, but aren’t staying long enough to make a career out of it.
While deployed in Iraq, Luszey rode around in army trucks wearing heavy, bullet-proof gear.
That took a toll on his body.
He left the service with a bad back, ringing in his ears, and PTSD.
Luszey: The biggest downfall for veterans is when an employer sees that you were in combat, they associate PTSD or TBI as being a bad thing. Sometimes we do have to take an extra day off, but other times we are extremely task-oriented. We will give it our best to get the job done.
Many employers have a hard time figuring out how to handle the symptoms of PTSD. Hannah Rudstam is with the Employment Disability Institute at Cornell University.
Rudstam: Our survey indicated that employers were not totally convinced that a PTSD diagnosis does not pose a risk for violence in the workplace. Research tells us that it did not. However, our research indicates that employers were unsure.
In New Hampshire, a handful of businesses are hiring disabled veterans. Yet, despite good intentions, many have yet to learn how to accommodate those with PTSD and TBI. And for retired squad leader Philip Paquette, efforts to recruit disabled veterans can’t come soon enough.
Paquette: I do want to get back to work. I can see it getting frustrating if I’m not going to be able to get a job.
That’s an unprecedented challenge for the state. And for the country.
Telephone listing of veteran resources. (pdf)