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Invisible war wounds hinder vets' job hunts

While there are many wounded warriors from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that may fit Hollywood stereotypes of disabled veterans -- Lt. Dan from "Forrest Gump," for example -- the bulk of the wounds from those wars are more insidious because they are invisible.

So when veterans make the transition to civilian life, striving to reintegrate into a very different world, those invisible wounds are often the elephant in the room when meeting strangers, most especially potential employers.

For current Arizona resident and former Marine Staff Sgt. Jay Ramirez, the tone of his post-service job interviews after returning from Afghanistan in 2011 seemed to circle frequently around it.

"I was confident in my interviews, but I wasn't getting hired," Ramirez, 37, said. "Some of the questions they were asking, after the interview, I felt like they assumed or thought that I would snap."

Doctors and scientists are still only beginning to understand post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries and their creeping, destructive natures. And if they are just starting to wrap their heads around the issue, public understanding likely lags even further behind.

Once part of an urban sniper detail, Ramirez freely admits to the negative affects the trauma of his service had on his daily life. Besides losing a couple of his fellow Marines to IEDs, Ramirez was diagnosed with the symptoms of traumatic brain injury from the same IEDs, as well as issues with post-traumatic stress.

Jay Ramirez
Jay Ramirez and his family, in an undated picture Family photo

He had a law enforcement job when he got back to America, but he admitted he "wasn't able to decompress quick enough," so he lost it. Months passed for the married father of three; numerous job interviews came and went. But all the while Ramirez stuck to a regimen of psychological counseling and therapy.

Even telling employers he was on that regimen didn't change things.

So Ramirez did what veterans advocacy and support groups across the country recommend to everyone who will listen: He networked with them and fellow veterans and reached out for help until something finally happened. For him, groups like the Wounded Warriors Project (WWP) are lifesavers.

"Wounded Warriors taught me to be confident and to let me know there are people out there who care," Ramirez said.

Fortunately for veterans like Ramirez, there are numerous private groups beyond just the Wounded Warriors Project that care, and that try to help wounded veterans find work, such as Disabled American Veterans,, and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, to name a few. Beyond those, the military and the Veterans Administration have been pushing in recent years to do more than just discharge soldiers and wish them luck.

The Army, for example, has been recently bulking up the resources for its Warrior Transition Command (WTC), and it even has a more-specific Employer Partnership Office for reservists. WTC spokeswoman Cynthia Vaughan said there are 200 advocates across the Army that work with veterans, including a focus on employment and education opportunities. On November 1, they launched a nationwide initiative to get employers to consider hiring more veterans.

Daniel Lessard, director of WWP's Warriors to Work program, said more is never enough when it comes to helping wounded veterans find jobs.

"When (employers) look at a physical disability, they feel that as long as they provide an adequate environment, they can be successful," Lessard said. "The mental side, they don't know how to support someone with PTSD. They're concerned about what could happen if they have an episode. The reality is, what we try to explain to them, is that most of the warriors are able to go back to work at a high level of function whether or not they suffer from TBI or PTSD. Therapy and time helps them deal with it."

The VA reports that as many as 20 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars experience full-blown PTSD, which is best described as a disease wherein one's ability to function has been impaired to some degree by a traumatic experience. In Vietnam veterans, the VA says the rate is as high as 30 percent. Privately, many mental health professionals say all of those numbers are likely much higher.

Whatever the actual rate, as Lessard explained, PTSD is a manageable disease, and there are numerous free resources available to veterans to help them cope and become fully functional employees. Still, the perception among perspective employers that veterans might "snap" is a difficult prejudice to overcome.

Jorlui Sillau, 34, a former Marine who deployed to Iraq in 2004, was diagnosed with PTSD upon return. Besides the difficulty it presented him in his daily life, Sillau said it became a clear hindrance to finding employment after he left the service in 2005.

"Sometimes it did feel a little uneasy during the interview," Sillau said. "There are some stereotypes that do come along."

Sillau, however, ultimately succeeded by doing the same thing Ramirez did: He reached out to fellow veterans and veterans groups, volunteered his time, and eventually found employment counseling fellow veterans at Workforce 1 Veterans Career Center in New York.

The former Sergeant of the Guard said he now advises fellow veterans to just keep plugging away, as hard as it might seem. It's not easy to demand initiative from men and women who have spent the majority of their careers being told what to do, but it's necessary.

"One of the things that really helped me out was establishing a support network - from different organizations, support from family and friends," Sillau said. "That period of transition from discharge to finding employment is a very crucial time. If the individual isn't busy or feel like they're needed, it's tough, tough to go through that."

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