Jerry Green is a proud man, a good father and a loyal Marine. Coming home from the Vietnam War, he worked long hours to feed his family, raising three children along the way.
A machine operator, Green shakes hands with a strong grip, looks you in the eye when he speaks and does so with an easy but straightforward voice.
All this makes the story he tells so much harder to hear.
“I am sleeping on my sister’s couch,” Green said. “Actually, it’s not big enough to be called a couch. It’s more like a little cot.
“But it’s the one thing keeping me from being homeless.”
Green, like so many veterans, is fighting another war that begins when the tour of duty ends. Post-9/11 veterans are haunted by an unemployment rate of 15 percent, skyrocketing suicide rates, the curse of post-traumatic stress disorder and insurance companies that refuse to pay for treatment.
“I cried the day I stood in line for food stamps,” said Green. “It was devastating.”
Green, 59, is the victim of a system that rewards greed while punishing the least of these. Factories close up shop for $1-an-hour labor overseas, while in one day, your average American CEO will earn more than your average worker earns in a year.
This is a democracy? We bailed out bankers. Why not veterans?
“Veterans must deal not only with the stress of a combat zone situation, but coming home to the stress of taking care of a family and the stress of trying to find a good job,” said Marvin Wells, of the Tennessee National Guard.
Wells was in town last week as part of a program that travels the state, helping veterans, currently enlisted soldiers and spouses learn how to interview, write résumés and find work. The word “marketable” is used frequently. Their three-day workshop, hosted by the DoubleTree Hotel, ended with a job fair.
Watching the soldiers take notes on hotel stationery with their complimentary pens, I imagined them back in the line of fire: dodging roadside bombs, trying to stay alive.
Now they’re discussing e-mail etiquette and appropriate cell phone ringtones.
All the while, I kept thinking of one number: $800 billion, the amount of money the U.S. government spends each year on its military.
This accounts for almost half the world’s military spending. With such a budget, can’t we do more?
I heard recently of a program called Pennies for Patriots, which collects spare change for wounded soldiers.
“Our country can never do enough to take care of its veterans,” said Chattanooga Congressman Chuck Fleischmann. “We need to have programs available to serve our veterans, but also make sure the private sector responds and looks to hire veterans when they come back.”
The Employer Partnership program allows businesses to voluntarily pledge to make an honest effort to hire veterans. In Chattanooga, Volkswagen has signed on, along with dozens of others.
“The military made me very mature. I can work with just about anybody,” said Matthew Presley, 22, of the Tennessee National Guard. “But right now, I’m underpaid and overworked.”
Watching unemployed soldiers try to make themselves marketable made me want to lower my head and apologize. After such service, our nation — particularly the government that represents them — should bend over backward to give them life on Easy Street.
“No one said life is going to be fair,” Presley said.
One by one, the soldiers echoed Presley. They all refused to say their country had let them down.
That only means one thing.
We sure as hell should.
David Cook can be reached at email@example.com and encourages local businesses to visit employerpartnership.org
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...