Helping National Guard and Reservists “re-enter” after deployment

Sometimes local news should have a wider audience across the country.

Our US Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has earned great respect in this state for his humane principles and competence at building coalitions to get things done in DC. Here’s an example from the Oregonian newspaper on an issue that, typically for him, is not at all parochial but affects all of us deeply.

Sen. Wyden proposes extending Guard pay

The Oregon lawmaker wants to give soldiers returning from war 90 extra pay days

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

JULIE SULLIVAN, The Oregonian Staff

When Oregon Army National Guard soldiers returned from Iraq four years ago, fewer than half had a job waiting.

Employers wanted to help. Within a week, the Guard organized a reintegration fair that offered an estimated 500 jobs. But not a single soldier took one.

It was too soon.

“They are not ready to leave a combat zone and seven days later, go back to work,” Brig. Gen. Mike Caldwell said.

State and federal officials say they’ve learned how to do it right. U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., wants to extend federal pay for National Guard and reservists for 90 days to ensure a “softer landing” when they return.

Oregon has posted some of the highest percentages of Guard members serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another 2,700 are training to deploy Iraq in July.

Unlike the regular Army, where soldiers return to their stateside military jobs and bases, the Oregon Guard and reservists scatter to hometowns. They lose their military salary, and more than $600 a month in other hazardous duty and separation pay.

When Oregon soldiers returned from Afghanistan two years ago, fewer than half of them younger than 35 had a job waiting. The younger the vet, the worse the outlook, with nearly 65 percent younger than 25 unemployed.

“About 79 percent returned to poverty,” said Sgt. First Class (Ret.) J.D. Baucom, a career assistance liaison for the Oregon Guard. He’s concerned in today’s economy those numbers are bound to get worse.

Wyden said paying the Guard for up to 90 days after they return would give them time to rebuild their lives before hitting a financial wall.

“We not willing to sit around and watch soldiers go from the front lines to unemployment lines,” he said.

Oregon has led in veterans’ advocacy. The Guard’s re-integration program — launched by wounded Alsea and Albany infantrymen in 2004 — is a national model. In 2007, the Legislature created a new veterans hiring preference for public employees. Now it is considering extending that preference from 15 years to a lifetime and granting 15 days unpaid leave to spouses of deploying soldiers.

Wyden’s bill covers returning soldiers so it would help only a fraction of the 350,000 Oregon veterans. He met former service members at the IBEW Local 48 in Northeast Portland on Tuesday morning in part to highlight job opportunities in the building trades. One federal program, Helmets to Hardhats, has put more than 1,757 veterans nationally into union apprentice programs. Across the hall, three young military veterans had found union jobs a good match on their own. They said that learning discipline, attention to detail and the ability to work in a team in the service has helped them apprentice as commercial electricians.

“I tried college, but I was working full time and going to school full time and that didn’t work,” said Craig Enneberg, 28, of Sherwood. “This works.”

Still, veterans advocates — and veterans themselves — told Wyden that a far more targeted approach is needed. Among the suggestions:

Reduce paperwork. “If we can’t get through the process, how we can we ask a 20-year-old from eastern Oregon who doesn’t know where to call?” said Sgt. 1st Class Phillip Maas, who manages career assistance for the reintegration team.

Connect veterans. Ret. Master Sgt. Mike Eschete, who recently graduated from Portland State University, proposed a mentoring program using military retirees. “They speak a different language and understand a dimension that is invisible to others,” he said.

Educate gatekeepers at agencies. “Put someone in that position who gives a damn,” said Erik Burris, a 12-year veteran of the Navy. Burris said one state employment specialist, Rene Garcia, helped him.

But little else has helped Burris in this economy.

The 41-year-old aviation structural mechanic and flight deck troubleshooter in the Navy has been laid off from four jobs in Portland since 2002. Wyden invited him to the Tuesday meeting. He arrived in a stylish blue shirt and tie, his carefully clipped hair and leather organizer in hand. He handed a reporter his resume.

After being laid off from jobs in quality control, sales, tech support and as a contractor at Intel he hasn’t worked since January 2008. He keeps applying, whittling his three-page resume into a one page “cram ad” and checking 12 job boards online a day. He does all the family cooking for his wife, Jeanmarie, and their daughter and keeps the kitchen immaculate in their “inexpensive” 900-square-foot Tigard apartment.

“Home is what you make it,” Jeanmarie says.

“You lose your pride and a little bit of yourself every time you get laid off,” he says. “And we have so much to give.”

juliesullivan@news.oregonian.com

2009 Oregonian

Why not let your senators and representatives know that you support this? The following pages help you get contact information and send emails:

for US representatives; need to know your ZIP code + the four digit addition to it

this one works for both representatives and senators (also yields info for state legislators); use the search box at the left to get names, click on name, click on “Contact” tab above the person’s photo.

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