RETURNING HEROES TAX CREDIT
As part of President Barack Obama's proposed jobs bill, businesses would receive up to $2,400 in tax credits for each unemployed veteran hired and up to $4,800 if that veteran were unemployed for six months or more. The maximum "Wounded Warriors Tax Credit" would be doubled to $9,600 if a business hired an veteran with a service-related disability who was unemployed for six months or longer.
After years away, Army Sgt. Timothy Castleberry wants to be with his wife and 8-month-old daughter, but would head back to Afghanistan in a heartbeat.
He went into the military straight out of high school, and there aren't many jobs other than active service that can support his family.
Since returning from war in 2010, the 22-year-old bounced around to a couple odd jobs -- collecting scrap metal, cooking food at Bojangles', working in a staffing office -- but civilian life is too different from the three years he spent in Iraq and Afghanistan for him to adapt.
"I did as best I could, but they fired me anyway," he said. "I've always been a worker. I've never not had a job. It makes me worry what my daughter will think when she grows up and sees her dad can't pay the bills."
A proposed tax credit could help the roughly 1 million unemployed post-9/11 veterans like Castleberry struggling to enter the job market.
In his proposed jobs package sent to Congress last week, President Barack Obama included a "Returning Heroes" tax credit. The credit could give employers up to $4,800 to hire unemployed veterans and up to $9,600 if those veterans were injured during their service.
Though the figures fluctuate rapidly, about 15 percent of veterans in Castleberry's age group are unemployed, according to the Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs. By comparison, only 9.1 percent of the total workforce was out of a job last month.
"The main challenge is just the market. Whenever anybody goes to look for a job, the employer is sitting there with hundreds of applications," said Tom Webster, veteran employment representative at the local Tennessee Career Center. "When veterans come back, they're in different circumstances. Depending on where they've been and what they've been through, they have to readjust before they can start looking for a job."
Adjusting to Civilian Life
Those challenges aren't easy to overcome, especially for those like Castleberry who have known only high school and the military. Most civilians in their early 20s have had a serious job or two, some extra schooling or maybe a college degree. Castleberry has none of that.
"I missed a lot of stuff," he said. "Nobody wants to give anybody a chance if they don't have experience."
He has even less experience in job search etiquette. He's respectful to new people. The military has a better way of instilling "sirs" and "ma'ams" than dear old grandma.
But he gets annoyed when talking about how a potential employer chastised him for showing up to an interview in ripped jeans.
"It's hard to adjust," Castleberry said. "I can talk to colonels, generals, no problem, but I don't know how to talk on an interview."
It's easy to pick out the notes of nostalgia when listening to him talk about his time in the military. The respect for rank. The camaraderie. The clear orders. Even talking about difficult topics like times he was scared for his life, he keeps an almost reverent tone. The military just makes sense, but civilian life, with its small talk and unstructured social settings, is frustratingly hard to understand.
Learning to communicate is even harder with employers. Bosses can quickly understand how managing a McDonald's or stocking shelves at Walmart translates to their business. The same doesn't hold true when they see "recon specialist."
"We do have training, but they don't equate the experience we get in the battlefield," said Iraq war veteran Jenny Stamey.
Frustrated with the lack of work opportunities, Stamey is studying to get her medical assistant certification. She would like to jump right into the field, but civilian employers can't accept experience treating combat wounds on the battlefield.
Both Stamey and Castleberry said they've repeatedly run into employers who pass over their related military experience for applicants with related civilian experience. But Stamey said the only difference between several military jobs and civilian jobs is you carry a handgun and a rifle when you work.
"As far as the basics, they're the same. A lot of training does translate," Stamey said. "I don't think it's fair at all. If it works in a military scenario, it works in a civilian one."
But some em-ployers, whose image of the returning soldier is a person suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, have trouble getting past that stereotype.
"The majority coming back do not. They're coming back and getting themselves into the workplace," said Don Smith, East Tennessee's assistant commissioner for the Department of Veterans Affairs. "When they get into the workforce, they traditionally are extremely good employees."
That's what Castleberry tries to tell his bosses. Give him clear orders and he'll get his job done, but when others don't operate the same way, it can be tough for him to relate.
Will Credit Make a Difference?
Veterans already see some extra services when looking for jobs. They can skip the line at the unemployment office and are referred to employers a full day before any other applicants. Tennessee gets $3.574 million in grant money for its 55 employees who served 34,475 veterans last year.
Some employers already have seen the military work ethic and are happy to pick up veteran employees whenever they can.
Chattem, a local 80-employee pharmaceutical manufacturer, recently hired a veteran to work in its IT department. Jason Allen, the company's vice president and general manager, said he's had great experience with them in the past.
"We are an organization that manages by objectives, so we believe in accountability, and these people are not new to accountability and objectives," he said.
For employers like Chattem, a tax credit for hiring unemployed veterans would be nice, but rather than act as an incentive, it would equate to a bonus for something they would have done anyway.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said such regulations could be detrimental to creating jobs.
"The 'Returning Heroes' tax credit certainly is an idea Congress ought to take a look at," he said in an email. "Unfortunately, much of this so-called jobs plan will do little to make it easier and cheaper to create private-sector jobs."
But U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Chattanooga, said this type of program is the way to create more job openings.
"I like to see it done this way through a tax credit to make it an incentive," he said. "Especially when it comes to our veterans, we need to do everything possible to welcome them back."
Castleberry also said such incentives are needed. He's open to most any job, but needs to leave for one weekend a month and two weeks each year for National Guard training in Memphis. Though legally employers can't discriminate, he said his service obligations add to the flood of reasons they see not to hire him.
"If you're in the military, you don't know what to do," he said. "I'm trying to keep my head above water."