WASHINGTON -- When Eric Smith, 26, returned home after his second tour in Iraq serving as a Navy medic, he didn't expect to have a difficult time finding work.
While on tour, Smith had worked as a physician's assistant in the intensive care unit (ICU), caring for patients undergoing everything from cancer to recent brain surgery. At times, he served on the front lines treating infections. He never thought the expertise he had developed in the field wouldn’t amount to a job back home -- but when he returned he found that he couldn't get a job in medicine without the right certifications.
"They beat it into your head, that you're a veteran, [employers] want you, they know about your dependability and your training, blah blah blah," Smith said. "That proved not to be the case. I got out in August 2008, and in September 2008 there was a big economic downturn and that changed everything. It really became: what do you have off the bat, are you able to come in and just work and do you have all the necessary certifications?"
Smith joined the military at age 17, and has no college degree. He now lives with his parents in Baltimore. He's had three jobs since his return, all temporary positions. He lives off his VA check and picks up odd jobs as they come up around the neighborhood.
The economic crash has been unkind to veterans returning from the most recent wars. On Wednesday, Smith testified at a hearing in Washington examining unemployment among veterans led by Sen. Patty Murray (D -Wash.), who has been on the forefront of a fight to ensure proper support for returning vets.
More than one fifth of 18-24 year old veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan were unemployed in 2010, according to recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployment rate for young male veterans was 21.9 percent last year -- more than two percent higher than their non-veteran counterparts. Those who focus on veteran rights and unemployment issues find that number disturbing.
"We're asking our young men and women to go serve in combat and make major sacrifices -- not just going into danger for their country, but the sacrifice of time from their lives. It's a moral imperative to actually support them when they get home," said Tim Embree, a legislative associate at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America who served two combat tours in Iraq. "We spend so much money investing in the service members while they're wearing the uniform but then to just waste that? It's a waste of tax dollars," he added.
Embree said one of the biggest challenges for returning veterans can be figuring out how to translate skills they’ve gained in the service to civilian jobs. This challenge goes both ways -- employers often need help understanding how veteran skills can benefit their businesses.
In Embree's view, long term unemployment can be one of the most hazardous obstacles for both young veterans coming home from war, and for society at large.
"Unemployment is one of the most dangerous problems,” Embree said. “If a person can't find a job and they're already susceptible to mental or physical injuries, it's going to be a lot more expensive down the road.” On the other hand, he said, “if someone has a good job that they can develop in and grow in, they're not going to be homeless. They're not going to be utilizing more and more services because they're not going to need to."
While the statistics are most dire for young veterans returning home from Afghanistan and Iraq, the problem of unemployment after the military is widespread.
After serving in the U.S. Navy for the past seven years, Clayton Crotty, 29, couldn't find work. Although he has applied to over 50 jobs since his terminal leave in August 2010, he has yet to be called for an interview.
"I think I'm a good candidate," said Crotty, whose fiancée is due with their first child in August. Although Crotty was never deployed during his two tours in the Navy, he was certified as a welder. "I've applied for welding jobs in Navy shipyards around Philly and can't even get interest in that,” he said. “How much more qualified can you get?"
Crotty said he receives about $2,000 a month in unemployment checks, which helps ease the financial pressure of having a baby on the way. But he was hoping to be able to use the skills he developed in the Navy in a civilian job. He said he focuses most of his job seeking efforts on positions that list "veteran's preference," but he's starting to wonder whether that means anything.
"To say I'm frustrated is the worlds largest understatement," he said. "My home life has suffered, my finances are suffering, and 60 percent of my income now is gone. I'm at my wit's end."
Part of Crotty’s struggles to compete in the job market likely stem from the fact that he joined the military in lieu of pursuing a college degree. He said he is now planning to go back to school near his hometown of Wenonah, NJ, since that seems to be his only option, but he is worried about having to start at the bottom so late in life.
"It's not ideal," he said. "By the time I get my degree, I'll be 32 or 33, and nobody wants to start the job they're gonna have for the rest of their lives at that age. I'd prefer to start a job now, but that didn't work out."
Those who advocate on behalf of veterans have been pushing for more federal programs to help integrate returning vets into civilian life.
"We need to ensure the skills they've learned in the field transfer into the certifications they need to perform those same duties at home,” Sen. Murray, who is the chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, wrote in an email. “We need to improve outreach and oversight of current administration efforts to address this problem, and we have to eliminate the stigma many veterans feel is attached to their service because of the invisible wounds of war. We cannot continue down a path that has our veterans going from fighting to keep us safe to fighting just to get an interview."
This story is part of Military Families Week, an effort by HuffPost and AOL to put a spotlight on issues affecting America's families who serve. Find more at jobs.aol.com/militaryfamilies and aol.com.