VA preparing to welcome veterans home from Middle East

Many Las Vegans will always recall when President Barack Obama famously suggested that in order to conserve money, perhaps Americans should not visit our fair city. Sometime later he came here to campaign for Sen. Harry Reid and lightly backed away from those comments. But in contrast to all that, several recent secretaries of the Department of Veterans Affairs have often visited here, including Obama's current VA secretary, Eric Shinseki.

Of course the visits are all official, and during his last appearance to speak to the Student Veterans of America (SVA) at a job fair at the Rio, I had the chance to sit down with him and ask some questions about employment for veterans.

It was pointed out to the secretary that with the troop withdrawals in the Middle East, there will be thousands of veterans coming home not only to seek employment but also to apply for government medical and educational benefits. How is the VA planning to take on those new clients?

Shinseki pointed out that for the past year or more he has been automating the VA as never before. He said, "We get about a million claims every year," and admitted that "it will get steeper as troops come home from Iraq and Afghanistan. It also depends on timing, pace and location" as to which VA geographical areas will receive larger or smaller numbers of new veterans.

He also pointed out that a lot depends on what the Department of Defense does as it brings troops home. "Almost everything we do originates with the Department of Defense, so the partnership is important -- not from an operational standpoint but from a continuity of care," he explained.

At a recent veterans job fair in Los Angeles that I visited, several veterans told me that although there were many companies accepting applications, many veterans were told that the companies were not hiring at the time but merely accepting applications. I asked Shinseki if he had heard that in his travels. He said he was aware of it only anecdotally but added that he knows that looking for work is difficult.

"I am aware that it's challenging," he said. "That's why the president" and Congress are offering tax breaks to employers who hire new veterans who have been unemployed for six months or more. "The folks that (also) benefit from this are small-business owners," he said, since the tax breaks allow them to grow their businesses while helping America's veterans at the same time.

Shinseki said that nationwide, the unemployment rate for returning Middle East veterans is around 11 percent. He said employers who hire veterans will be gaining some of the best talent they could ever want. He said veterans are dedicated individuals who "don't watch the clock" and who bring the experience of working hard and following through when given tasks to accomplish.

He said the country as a whole has an opportunity to benefit from those veterans, just as it did after World War II when millions of veterans used the G.I. Bill to tremendous advantage and "helped grow the country." Adding a comment that compared older veterans with the newest crop, he said, "Otherwise we sign up for 'there is only one greatest generation' in this country, and it will never repeat itself. I don't think so. I know these youngsters. They are very much capable."

Separately, the SVA said that academic success should be a segue to a career. Dan Sewell, vice president of SVA, said the Las Vegas job fair was one of the best his organization has coordinated. It not only gave members a chance to meet potential employers, but it also provided them with an invaluable opportunity to network with each other and discuss important issues.

The American Legion had a booth at the fair and said it provided a viewpoint about what its representatives call the "veterans unemployment problem" that "figures to worsen as conflicts overseas draw down." The Legion also accepted resumes for positions it has open at its own facilities.

Elsewhere around the country, some veterans have expressed concern that colleges are not prepared to accept students with what might be called the "unique needs" of returning veterans. There are such readjustment issues as recovery from physical and mental injuries and the culture shock of walking off a military airplane and into a civilian classroom with little or no time to acclimate.

Press reports say there are some strategies that work to help keep veterans in school. Orientation programs and specialized counseling along with training faculty and staff on how to work with veterans can all be of assistance. Some returning GIs can feel isolated and have difficulty interfacing with younger students with a wide age difference and who have not experienced combat.

While it certainly appears that Shinseki and the VA have been working to help all the veterans it can in any way it can, the organization Iraq Veterans Against the War points out that many returning troops suffer from post traumatic stress disorder , military sexual trauma and major depressive disorder . Such injuries can go undetected for months or even years, the group reports. So for many of Shinseki's returning veterans of the new greatest generation, Iraq Veterans Against the War say the war at home may have just begun.

Journalist and author Chuck N. Baker is an Army veteran of the Vietnam War and a recipient of the Purple Heart. He is the managing editor of Nevada's Veterans Reporter newspaper and the host of the "Veterans Reporter Radio Show" on KLAV (1230 AM) from 8-9 p.m. Thursdays and of the "Veterans Reporter News" at 2:30 a.m. Fridays on VegasTV KTUD Cable 14.