Iraq Veterans Struggle To Get Work

Army Staff Sgt. Steven Cummings, 50, who served with the 101st Airborne for 18 months in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom, wears his Desert Camouflage Uniform at his home in Milan, Mich., Tuesday, May 24, 2005.
Nearly every day he was in Iraq, Army Staff Sgt. Steven Cummings would get so shaken by mortar round explosions that, even now, a year after his return home, he drops to the ground at the crackle of lightning.

Iraq had a big impact on Cummings in another way — his finances. In his absence, his wife took out two mortgages on their home in Milan, Mich. They fell $15,000 in debt, as the pay Cummings earned during his 14 months overseas was less than he had made as a civilian electrical controls engineer.

Looking back, those almost seem like the good times.

Cummings has been laid off from two jobs in the year since he left Iraq. While other reasons were given for the layoffs, Cummings thinks both were related to his duty in the Michigan National Guard and the time off it requires.

Like some other veterans who have returned from Afghanistan and Iraq, he is struggling to find work.

"I don't know what I'm going to do now. I'm in the exact position I was when I came back from Iraq," said Cummings, a father of two. "I'm 50 years old and I have a mortgage payment due. I'm tired of it."

Although many employers take pride in hiring veterans and make up any pay an employee lost while deployed, some are reluctant to hire reservists and Guard members who might have to deploy again, said Bill Gaul, chief officer at Destiny Group, an online organization that seeks to match employers and veterans.

Almost 490,000 troops from the Guard and reserve have mobilized since Sept. 11, 2001, overseas or for duty in-country. Of those, about 320,000 have completed their mobilization.

The number of unemployed Guard members and reservists who served in Iraq is unclear because the Labor Department will not begin gathering data specifically on post-Sept. 11 veterans until August. The unemployment rate for veterans of all wars was 4.6 percent last year, the department said, compared with an overall unemployment rate of 5.5 percent.

Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Pa., and Rep. Joe Schwarz, R-Mich., are co-sponsoring legislation that would give companies up to $2,400 in tax credits for each veteran from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars they hire.

That could be a "mini-windfall" for a small company, said Schwarz, a Vietnam veteran. "It will make a difference."

The lawmakers said their proposed tax credit also would be extended to companies that hire dependents of soldiers who died in combat and the spouses of those in the Guard and Reserves who deployed longer than six months.

"This is a way to give respect to our servicemen and women who have served," said Schwartz, daughter of a Korean War veteran.

There are laws designed to protect the civilian jobs of deployed Guard and reserve troops, but some still come home unemployed if their companies skirt the law or cut jobs for other reasons, such as the closure of a business.