We live in flag-waving times. Politicians, pundits, business leaders, preachers and advertisers all sing the praises of the good old USA and the men and women — “the warriors” — who serve in the armed forces.
But there appears to be a huge disconnect between words and actions.
Those returning from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan face a 13.3 percent unemployment rate, far higher than the national average. Vets in the 18 to 24 age range face a staggering 30 percent unemployement rate. Those serving in the National Guard and Reserves are looking at 14 percent unemployment rates.
According to Kevin Schmiegel, a retired Marine officer who now is a vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, there are more than 1 million unemployed vets, nearly 16,000 of them living in Minnesota.
Jobless vets huge issue for American Legion
The issue is a huge one to those attending this week’s American Legion Convention in downtown Minneapolis.
What’s behind the numbers? Superficial patriotism? Cynicism?
“It’s more complex than that, according to Minnesota’s 1st District Democratic Congressman Tim Walz, who addressed the convention Wednesday morning.
For starters, Walz said, the figures can be slightly misleading. Many of those being classified as unemployed are actually going to school.
There are other factors that make the numbers seem so stark. Walz says that 50 percent of those serving in the military are from rural parts of the country, areas that represent just 15 percent of the nation’s population. When vets return to their homes, they may well be returning to places where jobs are sparse.
Additionally, Walz said, many of the young people who enter the military are those who would not have gone on to colleges or trade schools, meaning they would have been especially vulnerable in this economy. In many cases, Walz said, these are young people who joined the military because they didn’t have other opportunities.
Still, Walz said, the unemployment numbers are absurdly high, in part, he believes, because employers don’t understand the special skills veterans have.
As it is, the military doesn’t spend enough time helping those leaving the military “fill out a meaningful resume.”
Walz used the example of a young person who might have been a military squad leader.
Educating employers is key, Walz says
“What does that mean?” Walz said. “Too many employers don’t know. But what that means is that this young person managed 11 people, sometimes in the most difficult of situations. That’s a person who is qualified for a supervisory position in any company.”
Walz — and other speakers at this convention today — agreed with President Barack Obama, who Tuesday urged state legislatures to change an array of licensing qualifications so that military experience has more meaning in the civilian world.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., heads the House Veterans Affairs Committee. He told Legion delegates this morning that vets often face “unfair standards” when they return to civilian life.
“A combat medic,” Miller said, “is surely qualified to be an EMT at home. But too often that medic isn’t getting credit for his or her training and life experiences.”
Miller, it should be noted, delivered a mixed message that was wildly popular with the delegates in Minneapolis.
The government, he said, needs to dramatically reduce spending — and “over-reaching regulations.” Government, he said, “needs to get the hell out of the way and let the economic engine roar!”
There were loud cheers.
But after talking about the need for government to make big cuts in spending and regulation, Miller said, “Funding for our military and veterans will remain our highest priority!”
There were more loud cheers.
A disconnect between Legion leaders, delegates
It appears there is a political disconnect between Legion’s top leaders and the delegates.
For example, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was invited to speak this morning because “she’s been a great friend of veterans,” according to Jimmie Foster, the Legion’s national commander.
Foster rattled off a long list of veterans programs that were begun or enhanced under Pelosi.
The reception for Pelosi, however, was very quiet, except when she noted that four of her brothers had served in the Army.
U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, who is to speak Thursday, is expected to get a much more enthusiastic response.
Walz admits that the separation between the words of politicians and their actions can be frustrating. On a number of occasions, he said, he’s attempted to reach out to Bachmann to work on a vets’ issue. So far, he’s been unable to connect.
“I’m curious about what she’s going to say here,” he said.
“These issues can’t be partisan,” he said.
Walz, a retired command sergeant major, was greeted warmly by the delegates when he gave a passionate speech on the accomplishments of the current generation of military personnel.
After his speech, he talked of how more must be done to help the vets leaving the service. The 9/11 G.I. bill, which helps pay for college costs for vets, must be expanded so that it covers more vo-tech training, he said. He also said businesses which employ members of the Guard and Reserve need more help from the government.
“Some [businesses] have taken on a helluva burden because their employees have had repeated deployments,” he said.
That reality has made many employers reluctant to hire — or keep positions open — for those in the Guard and Reserve.
Jobs, jobs, jobs.
The Chamber’s Schmiegel said that his organization fears the unemployment problem will get worse as more and more vets come home.
“There are 160,000 leaving every year,” he said. “We have to do something, right now.”
The Chamber, he said, is establishing a national network of job fairs (there was one at this convention last Saturday) to match employers with vets.
“Just because a kid’s resume doesn’t have a college degree on it doesn’t mean he or she wouldn’t be a great hire,” Schmiegel said. “If they don’t have the skills, they’re trainable. They’ve proved that.”
Eric Shinseki, secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, talked of the president’s pledge to push tax credits for hiring unemployed vets. That credit, he said, would amount to $9,600 credit for each vet hired.
Shinseki, noting that the military has a nine-week boot camp for those entering the military, said it should have a nine-week training period for those returning to civilian life.
Delegates nodded their heads in agreement with the secretary’s comments.
Walmart CEO gets warm reception
But they seemed more impressed by Bill Simon, CEO of Walmart U.S. He proudly told the delegates to the convention that Walmart is the largest employer of vets in the country and said the company will spend $20 million on job training over the next five years.
“We are not waiting on government,” he said. “Walmart is tackling the jobs problem. We will have 100 new stores next year, with 15,000 new employees.”
This drew applause.
Simon said, “I’m not a politician,” but then sounded a lot like Florida’s Miller as he talked of how government needs to slash the corporate tax to “unleash America’s job creators.”
Meanwhile, he said, Walmart is eager to hire more vets.
“I’m proud of the jobs we create,” he said. “These are good jobs and good careers. Inside our stores every day, the American dream comes to life.”
The delegates cheered.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.