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Wounded Veterans Struggle To Find Civilian Jobs Amid Downturn, Bureaucracy

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ADAM LEWIS
Wounded Marine Corp veteran Adam Lewis outside his home on Monday, Nov. 7, 2011 in Yulee, Fla. | David Manning for AOL

Adam Lewis, a strapping Florida man, joined the Marines in 2004 when he was 19, and within a year he was fighting in Iraq's Anbar Province with Golf Company, 2nd Marine Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment. It was a bloody time in Anbar, with vicious and sometimes hand-to-hand combat with insurgents. Lewis kept busy.

He was first wounded in August 2005 by a bomb blast that perforated an eardrum and left him with ringing in his ears and other injuries. He wasn't hurt badly enough to be sent home, so he went back on duty and was traveling in a Humvee when the road gave way and he tumbled down an embankment, suffering compression fractures in his back. The Marines put him on light duty until he felt better, and he went back out into the fight.

This time, during operations in Fallujah, Lewis was shot in the head by a sniper. Luckily he had just turned his head and the bullet struck his skull at an angle, but the wound was still severe. After surgery came more than two years of rehab, culminating with his retirement from the Marine Corps on medical grounds in 2007.

To help himself land a god job and a career, Lewis took remedial reading courses to help repair the damage from his head wound, and went on to college. It took him three years to earn his associate degree. He got married and has a two-year-old daughter. This past summer he began seriously looking for work.

So far, no luck.

Having given so much for his country, Adam Lewis, at 26, has been without meaningful employment for four years, and is frustrated and angry after four months of intense job hunting.

"I've got a good resume, I've followed some good leads -- but I'm competing with thousands of others who didn't go to combat but have lots of experience,'' he said. "But I want you to know I have never taken any unemployment money or tried to milk the system.''

Almost a quarter-million young Americans who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan are on the streets looking for work, according to the Department of Labor. Their unemployment rate is 12.1 percent.

It's worse for severely wounded veterans like Adam Lewis. There are some 16,000 young Americans who have been severely wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan, and estimates are that a quarter of them or more are unemployed -- if they are even looking for a job. Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, this week put their unemployment number at 26.9 percent.

Despite a major new initiative led by First Lady Michelle Obama and the White House along with many government agencies and industry and private groups, there is a serious mismatch between employers who say they want to hire wounded veterans and the veterans themselves, who cannot seem to land a job.

It's a deepening problem throughout the country, as young wounded Americans transition out of the military medical system, faced with an awkward and often emotionally wrenching shift back to civilian life. Many are, like Adam Lewis, hard-chargers: ambitious and energetic people who have found value in teamwork, leadership and accomplishing missions. They are used to working in challenging circumstances, to say the least.

But they are also wounded. Amputees, burn patients and veterans who have suffered brain injury, among others, already struggle with pain, impaired mobility and, often, diminished cognitive skills. Those too severely injured to return to military service have been involuntarily separated from the career they loved and from their closest comrades, which can add a powerful sense of loss and uselessness.

"We didn't understand that the sense of being kicked off the team was going to have such an emotional impact on their lives," the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. James Amos, recently told a gathering of veterans and prospective employers.

For these veterans, however, unemployment is a problem with growing urgency. Every month that wounded veterans go without a job, it becomes more likely that they will never find work, rehabilitation specialists say.

According to Dr. Shane McNamee, chief of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Richmond, Va., who is leading a pilot program designed to accelerate job placement for the veterans in his care, patients with traumatic brain injury who are not working within a year of their injury have a 5 percent chance of ever holding a job again.

"It's dead-on clear," says McNamee, who cites research done by Brian McMahon and Paul Wehman at Virginia Commonwealth University's Rehabilitation Research and Training Center in Richmond. In general, he says, "people who are placed in a patient role for too long end up becoming passive participants in their own lives."

So for wounded patients, McNamee says, "the quicker you get back to work, the more likely you are to work over time, to continue working." Particularly given the enduring economic downturn, he notes, employers often look more skeptically at job-seekers who've been out of the job market for years.

Most wounded veterans are at a significant disadvantage in such a system, however, in part for bureaucratic reasons. They typically spend 18 months to two years navigating the bureaucratic labyrinth called the Disability Evaluation System, or DES, before they can be declared medically retired from military service. During that time, they may contact prospective employers, but they cannot accept a job or even an internship in the commercial sector.

Marines who are wounded, have minor injuries or are sick spend an average of 350 days in the Wounded Warrior Regiment, according to the regimental commander, Col. John L. Mayer. And the longer the injured languish in Marine or Army wounded warrior programs, the slimmer their chances of launching a civilian career.

After Adam Lewis was discharged from the intensive care unit at the Bethesda Military Medical Center outside Washington, D.C., he spent two years in the Wounded Warrior Regiment at Camp Lejeune, N.C. "That was time just sitting around the barracks when I could have been going to college and getting on with my life," he says.

"Yeah, it's a huge problem," says McNamee, whose pilot program is designed to speed amputees through the DES in six months while simultaneously providing them with high-intensity vocational education, community-based internships and job coaches to help during and after their searches. Attached to the project is a team of bio-mechanical engineers who can adapt vehicles, wheelchairs, computers and other devices for use by disabled veterans.

McNamee sees a career path as essential to veterans' emotional well-being as well as their financial independence.

"Our job is not to make patients," he says. "Our job is to help people through the final stages of these injuries and then allow them to rejoin the world again as a whole person. That can happen without a job, for some people. But most people need employment from an identity standpoint and from a financial stability standpoint."

"A large number of the severely wounded want to crank through this process and get to the end and get a job, but there are some who don't, who sit in the patient role because of age or the physical or mental damage they've suffered, and not as able to process through that," he adds. "This is about harnessing the motivational force that's inside these guys, so they know there's something that's going to be happening for them and there's someone going to help them get there."

Severely wounded veterans generally don't end up out on the street. Most receive generous benefits, including payments of up to $100,000 from the Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance Traumatic Injury Protection Program, disability payments from the Department of Veterans Affairs and other benefits and tax breaks.

But as McNamee says, finding meaningful employment isn't just about money. "It's about self-esteem," says Mayer, the Marine colonel.

Adam Lewis has applications languishing at Lockheed Martin, Home Depot, Lowe's and several federal agencies. He's not hearing anything from them.

Asked how he does in job interviews, Lewis hesitated. "I haven't even gotten in the door yet," he says. "I haven't been able to get an interview."

"If I could get an interview," he adds, "I'd definitely get the job."

Lewis sees the lingering effects of his war wounds as his greatest barrier to employment. He can no longer lift heavy weights, his ankles and feet can swell painfully, and sometimes his head aches from the scar tissue on his skull. His hearing is "kind of fuzzed." When he first got out of the Marines, he returned briefly to his old high school job as a short-order cook, but found he could no longer spend hours at a time on his feet in front of a hot stove. He has worked on cars, but in a closed space, the smell of gasoline fumes sometimes gives him a migraine.

He is looking to start a career as a technician or analyst with a company to which he can devote his work ethic. "When I get to working, I don't take lunch breaks. It's 'accomplish the mission,"' he says. In the meantime, he plans to bolster his expertise with information technology classes in the spring.

"It's definitely hard out there," Lewis says. "I am competing for employers who get pounded by 700 or 800 applications. While some employers say they give preference to veterans, he says, "I've never seen anyone asking if you are a wounded war veteran."

Lewis found it awkward going back to school as a wounded veteran years older than the other students, and years of frustration in the job market can take their toll. To compensate, he says, he has stayed active in his church, leaning on his religious faith for support. "I don't let any of it get me down," he says. "I'm a very spiritual person. I believe God has helped me through a lot of my psychological disabilities. I have coped."

Ironically, given the frustrating difficulty that Lewis and other wounded veterans have finding jobs, the jobs do seem to be out there. One organization that links the Defense Department and 3,000 corporate employers lists 700,000 job openings for veterans on its website, http://www.employerpartnership.org.

Michelle Obama and the White House have also launched a series of powerful initiatives to link veterans with jobs. The Pentagon runs job fairs and job boards for defense and intelligence openings at http://www.transitioncareers.com, and a job listing board and resume service for commercial jobs at http://www.acceptance.virtualtap.org/home. Defense contractors like Northrop Grumman offer personalized career transition services for wounded veterans at http://www.operationimpact.org. Many big corporations have specialized veterans employment services.

"We see the value and our senior leadership sees the value in hiring a 25-year-old veteran who has the right attitude and work ethic and values teamwork and integrity," says Jeff Cathey, a retired Navy fighter pilot who is a senior executive with Bank of America.

Veterans "love the responsibility," Cathey says. "They're disciplined. It's really hard to over-task them. Employers love their dependability and leadership skills. But at the end of the day, the veteran still has to make a business case for being hired."

Job offers, of course, don't always follow the rhetoric. "A lot of organizations say they want to hire, but sometimes that's not pushed down to the hiring authority," says Dave Ward, who runs the veterans employment program at the Wounded Warrior Project.

Organization is one major problem. There is no central registry of veterans or wounded veterans. After they are discharged from military service, wounded veterans may enroll with the Department of Veterans Affairs and take advantage of the VA's wide variety of health, education and employment assistance. But despite an aggressive VA outreach effort, many veterans may choose not to enroll.

Lewis says he has had nothing to do with the VA after he heard what he described as "horror stories" of VA malpractice. Besides, he says, "they're overloaded as it is."

As a result, veterans are often simply thrown into the churning millions-strong mass of Americans seeking work.

"My impression is that it's kind of difficult for the veteran and the hiring company to find each other," says John Janes, a veteran who works for a major manufacturer. He asked that the firm not be identified because he is not an authorized spokesman. Janes helps his company hunt down veterans who are likely job candidates, but finds it difficult.

"It's like two high school kids who want to date, but they're in different classes and they never meet in the hallway," he says.

Like would-be high school couples, the secret for veterans and employers may be networking. "It's all about who you know, not what you know," says Clarence Rivers, 47, an injured Army warrant officer who now works at a major bank. "Even though I have all the credentials, my resume was only one of millions ..." Eventually, he made the right connection through the Wounded Warrior Project's job counselors.

Lewis, like other veterans, says he's not finicky about what kind of work he'll do. "I can't go around and sell life insurance," he says. "But if the job is something meaningful and has a purpose, I'm in. I am not one of those vets who thinks I deserve a job just because I've been shot."

CORRECTION: This article previously referred to Jeff Cathey as Jeff Caney. The error has been corrected.

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