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Veterans' Unemployment

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Hello, my name is Kayla. I'm a combat veteran and I was on unemployment.

Admitting this publicly took years. I was deeply ashamed of what seemed a sign of my own weakness, my personal failings. But the news that unemployment among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is at 11.2% - higher than among our non-veteran peers - makes it clear that this problem is not mine alone.

In 2005, I got out of the Army and moved to the DC area to help the man who is now my husband, Brian. He had sustained a penetrating Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) from an improvised explosive device (IED) in October 2003 near Mosul, Iraq and was back at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. We struggled to navigate the complicated bureaucracy involved in getting him medically retired from the Army for months, with limited success.

Finally, we went on a belated honeymoon, seeking much-needed relaxation. Days before our scheduled return, he received an urgent message: the paperwork had finally gone through (over two years after he was injured), and he was to be retired from the military immediately. When we got back, the lengthy steps involved in processing out of the military were rushed through in days.

I felt relatively lucky. As an experienced Arabic linguist, it hadn't been hard for me to find work in the DC area. I had a signed offer letter for a good job, and was just waiting for my paperwork to go through. In the meantime, my husband would get two months of "terminal leave" - his accrued vacation days - and we would still get his housing allowance during that time. Surely I would be working by the time that ran out!

To our shock, the Army would not allow Brian to take his terminal leave, and "bought back" his vacation days instead. Suddenly, we were prospect of making ends meet with only the two months of his salary, deposited as a lump sum with no housing allowance, and Brian's military retirement pay, which was paltry due to a bizarre method for calculating benefits. Nervous calls revealed no progress on a prospective start date for my job. Brian had applied for disability from the VA, but we heard of lengthy delays in processing claims.

Within a few weeks, we began to worry how we would be able to pay our bills. Swallowing our pride, we both applied for unemployment benefits. The amount was almost shockingly low - we could not survive on our combined benefits, even with Brian's military retirement pay and final salary, and began charging our groceries on credit cards. Qualifying for unemployment was itself a time-consuming, paperwork-dense job. My husband, still recovering from the physical and psychological effects of his TBI, struggled unsuccessfully to fulfill the requirements properly, and we later had to repay some of the benefits he had received.

Luckily, my paperwork finally went through and I was able to start my job (five months after I got the offer). We were able to survive on my salary alone until Brian's second disability rating process was complete and he began getting VA benefits. To ease this process for others, it is crucial that injured servicemembers have a seamless transition from the Department of Defense to the VA. No one should have to endure frightening months of uncertainty and insufficient income, as we did.

This blog is cross-posted at VetVoice.