By Kirsten Adshead | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — If tomorrow morning Wisconsin woke up to an unemployment rate of 13 percent, reaction would likely be swift and passionate.
Just a sustained rate of about 8 percent was enough to prompt Gov. Scott Walker to call a special session of the Legislature on jobs creation this fall, and nary a bill comes out of the Legislature these days without lawmakers insisting the legislation will expand employment.
But, for Wisconsin veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, a 13 percent unemployment rate is reality, according to the state Department of Veterans Affairs, or DVA .
Half of the state’s disabled veterans are unemployed, the department said.
“Every day I see these men and women come in, and I want to cry,” said Dave Goeldner, a service officer for the Wisconsin Veterans of Foreign Wars who helps veterans and their families apply for state and federal benefits.
Help from a vet
State Rep. Evan Wynn, R-Whitewater, said he is trying to help.
Wynn, an Iraq veteran, plans to introduce legislation early next month aimed at helping veterans get jobs.
The legislation, Wynn said:
- Offers employers tax incentives to hire disabled veterans who are receiving unemployment benefits; the incentives would be prorated over five years to keep the employer from firing the veteran after the first year and, in exchange, the veteran would have to stop receiving unemployment benefits.
- Expands preferential treatment for veterans in hiring.
- Gives credit for related military experience toward a college degree, rather than require veterans to take a college course
- Allows the state to pay for the first professional license in Wisconsin for a veteran who meets all professional requirements for that licensure.
“That’s to bring veterans to Wisconsin,” said Wynn.
“For the money that the state would spend on getting them that license, it would more than be made up … by the revenue that comes from that family” moving here, he added.
Wisconsin has more than 407,000 veterans. About 32,000 have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many serving in the Middle East will be returning home soon.
President Barack Obama announced last week that U.S. troops will withdraw from Iraq by year’s end.
State officials said they have taken steps to help transition veterans back into civilian life, including helping veterans secure jobs.
Wisconsin’s GI bill pays for veterans’ college tuition and gives them a monthly stipend of about $1,200 for living expenses, said Ken Grant, the DVA’s administer of veterans benefits.
Wisconsin’s Department of Workforce Development, or DWD, offers a veterans employment program that pairs veterans with businesses seeking skilled workers.
DVA also plans to have a call center running within six months so veterans can reach a person, not a voicemail box, Grant said.
Paul Dolan, of Madison, knows first-hand the difficulty of transitioning from military experience to civilian life.
Life at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is a long way from his experiences in Japan, the Netherlands, Panama, Cuba, Finland and Germany — all places Dolan was stationed during his six-and-a-half years in the U.S. Marine Corps.
In 2009, Dolan left the military and then enrolled at the university.
It was, he said, daunting to be 26 years old and sitting next to 18- and 19-year-olds who had superior computer knowledge while he reacquainted himself with the details of student life.
“When I was in the Marine Corps, every day was laid out for me … my structure was very well organized,” Dolan said Thursday. “When I came to campus, it was so malleable.”
Dolan considers himself lucky. Long before he left the military, he had a plan of attack for his post-Marine years, a plan that included the associate’s degree he earned while serving in the Marine Corps.
The military offered him a two-week course aimed at helping veterans transition into civilian life, but without earlier preparation, it’s extremely difficult to get a job, housing, health-care access, and other necessities of life lined up, he said.
Dolan said he has a bad knee and sore back from his military days, but they aren’t enough to affect his ability to work.
Disabilities, though, are a key factor in determining how easily veterans find employment.
And then there is “the elephant in the room” — mental health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, DVA Deputy Secretary Jason Johns said.
Those issues contribute greatly to veterans’ high rate of unemployment, Johns said.
Other problems, he said, relate to job skills. Some veterans who got into the military at age 18 don’t have the job skills necessary for immediate employment. Others have job skills but want to switch career paths.
“I think when you add all that up — not all applied to one veteran at the same time — but through no fault of their own, they’re facing this hurdle to getting into the job market that others don’t have,” Johns said.
Goeldner sees apathy, from people and businesses, as a foundational problem.
And, he’s dedicated to ensuring that today’s military veterans do not endure the same difficulties as some veterans from the 1960s and 1970s.
“We, as Vietnam vets, need to make sure that what happened to us doesn’t happen to anyone past us.”