Nov. 11--As a Marine infantryman, Matt Hess had the skills, training and grit to survive two tours in Iraq.
Now, at the end of seven years of active duty, the 29-year-old Erie man faces a new challenge -- starting a civilian career to support himself, his wife and their three young children.
Hess, who's working part-time as a security officer at Presque Isle Downs & Casino while he attends school at Erie Institute of Technology, feels good about his chances.
But there's nothing automatic about it.
Despite tax breaks for employers who hire veterans, thousands of wartime veterans have found it difficult to parlay military experience into civilian jobs.
As a group, veterans generally enjoy a slightly better unemployment rate than the public as a whole. The unemployment rate nationally for all veterans was 6.5 percent in September, compared to an overall rate of 7.3 percent nationally.
Recent vets' challenge
But recent veterans haven't fared as well. The unemployment rate for veterans who have served since 2001 was 10.1 percent in September, topping double digits for the second month in a row, according to the Army Times.
The reality for young veterans is far worse.
For new veterans between the ages of 18 to 24, the unemployment rate averaged 20.4 percent in 2012, according to the March 22 edition of Time magazine.
The story's author points to the illogic of that reality: "Young veterans are entering the workforce with far more skills and experience than their civilian peers. Logically, they should be employed at higher rates, not lower."
Marine Capt. Ryan Powell, public affairs officer for the U.S.M.C. wounded warrior regiment in Quantico, Va., is inclined to agree.
Most veterans share common attributes that should make them valuable, Powell said.
"It's hammered into us, simple things like showing up early," he said.
Beyond that, Powell said, " I think a military veteran is looking to achieve and looking to further the organization's goals. You are used to putting your motivation second to the organization."
But the transition isn't always easy.
Lindsay Onukiavage, a 27-year-old Erie native who worked as a mechanic in the Army National Guard, said it took time for her to adapt after returning from a tour in Iraq that ended in 2009.
Onukiavage, who recently became a medical assistant at a local pediatrician's office, said it took time to adapt to the culture of a civilian workplace.
"It's a lot different," she said. "In the military, you are told what to do and how to do it. In civilian life, you have a job description, but no one is telling you how to do it."
Hess notices other differences -- sticking points that stand between him and a feeling of ease with the civilian world.
Part of it was just missing friends, people he had learned to trust with his life.
And part of it was realizing that he saw the world through different eyes.
"Veterans getting out might have a difficult time working with people who haven't served," he said. "They don't see things the way we do."
Hess said he doesn't get caught up in small worries on the job.
"I try to look at everything as a positive," he said. "Because of all the things I've been through, I don't think anything here will be as hard as what I've been through."
Paul Fitzgerald, director of EIT, which has helped retrain many veterans, said most veterans have the potential to be great employees.
But moving from battlefield to the workplace is rarely easy.
"I think it can be an emotional thing for them," Fitzgerald said. "I think a lot of guys come back changed, and I think it's a challenge for them every single day."
Jenny Jenkins, an IRS spokeswoman who covers northeastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, knows something about adapting to civilian life.
Jenkins is a lieutenant colonel who spent 22 years in the Marine Corp., working as an embarkation specialist and a public affairs officer.
As a college graduate, Jenkins said she had skills that could easily be adapted to the civilian world.
"There are a lot of skills that may not translate very easily on a resume," she said. "But our basic leadership skills are valuable qualities."
As an IRS employee, Jenkins said substantial tax credits -- thousands of dollars per employee -- are another reason companies should consider hiring veterans.
The challenge can be even greater for veterans who return with mental or physical injuries.
Marine Cpl. Ryan Sullivan, 28, said he was invigorated to serve by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But he had been plotting a career in the Marines since he was a small boy talking with his father, a Vietnam veteran, about his own service in the infantry.
Sullivan, whose Marine career began in 2003, saw that career come to an early end in 2007 when he was hit by shrapnel from a roadside bomb.
Even after surgery, Sullivan was left with back and neck injuries that still plague him daily.
And while the Wounded Warriors Project provided him with extensive help and rehabilitation, the experience also left him without a career.
"I looked in the newspaper to see if anybody was looking for a gunfighter and I was unsuccessful," he joked.
Sullivan, who signed on with the Marines at 17, joined the highway patrol unit of the Philadelphia Police Department. But like his stint in the Marines, his police career was cut short by an injury.
Facing the challenge
Although he was given a medical retirement from the police department, Sullivan said he still wants to work to support his 7-year-old daughter.
But the physical and emotional injuries rule out some possibilities.
Hess said he's also limited by the lack of a college degree that he might have earned had he made different choices.
"There are a lot of veterans who have skills that are very specific to the U.S. military. That is part of the sacrifice of serving your country. You know that going in," he said. "They call it a sacrifice for a reason."
But Sullivan said he's confident he can rise to the challenge.
That's something he learned in the Marines.
"You have to adapt and overcome," he said. "My mission now is getting an education, a new career or a new job. I am not going to let anything stop me."
JIM MARTIN can be reached at 870-1668 or by e-mail. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ETNmartin.
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Original headline: The search for jobs and a new life on the homefront
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