When Andrew Smith III talked with his U.S. Marine Corps platoon mates in Iraq before he returned to Maryland in 2009, he recalled they agreed finding a job in a recession would be tough.
But he said he never imagined it would be like this.
Smith said he sleeps four hours a night to make time for his part-time job loading baggage for Delta Airlines, training classes in the afternoons and searching for a full-time job with benefits to support his wife and two kids without relying on food stamps and other assistance.
But last week, during a job fair organized by the Maryland Department of Transportation for veterans in Baltimore, he was almost optimistic.
“For a while, we as veterans feel like we were forgotten about,” said Smith, 29, of Baltimore, who served two tours in Iraq as a field radio operator. “We felt as though we were walking around like zombies. Then the movement came along and we felt recognized and it feels good.”
The “movement” Smith is referring to is the growing awareness in Maryland and nationally of the once they leave the war zone.
Veterans at a job fair April 30 told stories of the perfect storm they faced upon returning home.
"We were already in the midst of the recession as we were getting out, so we were figuring work might be a little hard to find," said Smith, "but it’ll be there, we won’t be unemployed for too long. But that wasn’t the case."
Veterans said there were fewer jobs than when they left, higher health care and fuel costs and the American public got a skewed view of the potential psychological effects on those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan—wars at the center of fierce political debate at home.
At one point, a man at the job fair seemed to embody the frustration of vets everywhere when he retreated from the hubbub of the employment booths and employment pitches. He sat quietly in a chair in a cluster of empty ones declining to give his name but responding to a reporter's question by saying he was overwhelmed by the stress of looking for work.
In Maryland, the 8.9 percent average unemployment rate among the 28,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is higher than the state’s overall average.
Joblessness for post-9/11 veterans nationally was 12.1 percent in 2011, with young male veterans between the ages of 18 to 24 who served after 9/11 at 29.1 percent unemployment, according to March 20 Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
Job fairs are being held across Maryland in efforts to link veterans to jobs. Nationally, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has held about 140 job fairs for veterans and about 7,000 have found jobs through the “Hiring Our Heroes” initiative, reports the Los Angeles Times.
“It’s almost like they want to repay you for what you did."
A are also offering preference in hiring to veterans, a practice already in place at the state level. The Maryland Department of Transportation started offering veterans preference May 1. That came a day after this week's job fair, which it organized and was the first of its kind with 52 vendors at the 5th Regiment Armory in Baltimore.
Getting a job? ‘Like the Lottery’
Joshua Stavrakoglou, 27, from Baltimore, was honorably discharged in February from the U.S. Army after completing a 15-month tour in Iraq. He said he has applied for 250 jobs since getting out and is still looking.
He arrived 15 minutes early to the job fair that attracted between 500 and 600 participants in hopes of snagging a lead.
He said it’s been difficult to find someone interested in the skills he gained doing intelligence work in the Army, which he joined after earning a history degree from Stony Brook University in New York.
“This job fair was better than the last one I went to,” he said. “There’s this sense of desire to help you, because you did something that not a lot of people wanted to do in the first place,” he said. “It’s almost like they want to repay you for what you did."
John Richard, 55, a veteran from Dundalk, said the generation of young veterans flooding the workforce face employers who never served and don’t understand the “hardships veterans face.”
Several veterans interviewed at the fair said they are competing for jobs after being out of the workforce during multiple tours in Iraq or Afghanistan, time their competitors have spent getting college degrees and direct job experience.
"I guess the hump we’re trying to overcome—we’re competing with college grads," Smith said. "I’m competing with guys with business degrees, engineering degrees. ... . So I’m getting beat out by them. Honestly I don’t understand why."
Experts also said, in some cases, returning veterans can face emotional challenges amid the tremendous practical hurdles of rejoining civilian life.
About 20 percent of veterans home from Afghanistan or Iraq reported symptoms of major depression or post traumatic stress disorder, according to a 2008 RAND Corp. study.
“A lot of our soldiers are coming back from war and [have] seen terrible things, and may not have processed that,” said Fritzie Charné-Merriwether, special assistant to the UMBC vice president for student affairs who works on veterans’ issues.
“I think of a student when we first started school, he would have to always sit in a certain place in the classroom. He needed to see who was coming out," she said.
The recession is hitting home for older veterans, too.
Ronald Hoskinson, 61, who lives in Baltimore just outside of Pikesville, said he was weathering the poor job market through the generosity of family.
He and his wife live in the basement of his daughter’s house, where she resides with her boyfriend and two children.
“If it weren’t for my daughter … I’d be one of those guys on the corner with a sign,” said Hoskinson, who served in the Air Force from 1971 to 1975 in Massachusetts and England. He lost his job in 2010 working for a storage company in Randallstown a year after a company buyout.
“I’ve been looking for a job ever since,” he said.
His wife is recovering from cancer and gets a Social Security disability check but her monthly medication bill is $700, he said, and she has to have another operation.
In his job search, Hoskinson has found that it’s tough to get face time with employers and he said he doesn't feel he's getting preferential treatment for being a veteran.
“It’s like a lottery,” he said.
‘They need a future’
But Gordon Davis, with the Center for Professional Studies at Towson University, said there was a growing awareness among employers regarding the benefits of hiring veterans.
The center helps people get certifications for specific career fields, such as project management, human resources and medical coding and billing, he said.
“These are bright people,” he said. “They need a future. … They know what a sense of responsibility is—how to attack a problem and solve it. I think the hiring community is realizing there’s not a stigma and there shouldn’t be.”
Smith, the veteran supporting a family on food stamps and a part-time job, said he’s hoping employers will act on the good will he’s been increasingly hearing about.
Armed with a high school-degree and hands-on experience in radio communications in Iraq, he said he knows he’s competing for jobs with people with business and engineering degrees.
“We’re trainable," he said. "You give us minimal direction, and we can go in and do it. We take responsibility in everything we do. As veterans, we’re just looking to show that talent.”
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of Patch articles examining the employment issues Maryland veterans face in a fragile economy. In the coming weeks, Patch will ask veterans to publish their profiles on our sites as part of an effort to promote the skills of those soldiers who hail from or have settled in the Free State.
Are you a veteran looking for a job and want to tell your story? Email email@example.com.
Want a list of resources and potential employers who want to hire vets?
Other stories in this series: of how he found work, and regionally to help other veterans.
You can find more articles from this ongoing series, “Dispatches: The Changing American Dream” from across the country at The Huffington Post.