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Returning Veterans Now Battle Tough Job Market

Soldiers
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

Orlando Ocasio has a Purple Heart. What he needs now is a job.  As a member of the Marine Corps, Ocasio stormed Baghdad in 2003. A year later on his second deployment, he and his team were ambushed on their way to Fallujah, and he was shot in the leg and suffered shrapnel wounds. When he came home in 2004, he got a job at a factory making airline parts, earning about $42,000 a year.

He bought a home in the suburbs and settled down with his wife, Monica, to raise their two young boys.

“Then the economy went down and I was laid off, and as soon as that happened we couldn’t pay our mortgage, put food on the table,” said Ocasio, 31, who has now been unemployed for two years and has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder since the ambush.

“We were about 90 days from being homeless.”

Ocasio joined the ranks of the 240,000 unemployed veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Unemployment tops 20 percent among 18-to-24-year-old veterans, compared with a national rate of about 9 percent, Department of Labor figures show. And the situation is expected to worsen after 10,000 service members return from Afghanistan and 46,000 come home from Iraq by year’s end — many wounded or suffering from mental trauma.

A measure approved by the Senate on Thursday is aimed at helping unemployed veterans, by providing special tax incentives to companies that hire them and strengthening employment counseling and training programs. The House is expected to approve the bill next week, which would send it to President Barack Obama.

At the Humboldt Park Armory in Chicago, the chatter among men and women who have served was about the economy and the troops that are coming home to yet another battle, the job market.

“I am very concerned for all these troops,” said Leroy Holland who spent most of his time on the John F. Kennedy battleship during the Vietnam conflict. “They will go through the turmoil of not feeling like they fit in, the hell of adjusting back to life and in an economy that is ruined. I feel bad for them.”

While veterans from that era may see fewer benefits from the tax incentives and credits in the legislation, they have plenty of advice for veterans who are coming home to tough times.

“Please, please don’t be shamed to ask for help, especially mental help,” said 66-year-old Army veteran James Poriatis, who was injured in the Vietnam war. “We were all mostly ashamed after Vietnam, you don’t have to be.”

Ocasio, who suffers from anxiety and sleep problems, has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Since the ambush in 2004 he has felt distorted.

“Emotionally, physically I just have not been able to recover and here I am, at the VA, seven years later,” he said while sitting in a small waiting room on the tenth floor of the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center.

With the help of a friend and government assistance in the form of disability pay, Ocasio is now living in an apartment in Chicago with his wife and two toddler sons. Monica, also a former Marine, is a full-time student and mother while Ocasio tries to recover fully from the war and looks for a job.

“We have friends who are on their third and fourth deployments, and they have children, but they don’t want to get out of the military because they are afraid to come home and not have a job and medical insurance,” Ocasio said. “There are a lot of scared soldiers.”

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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