A Harder Road Home for Women Vets
When a job interviewer tells Donna Bachler, "Wow, you must've seen some crazy things over there," she figures she won't be hired.
If most of the interview is about Bachler's service in the global war against terrorism, "it's not a good sign," she says.
Dozens of unanswered job applications grew to hundreds after her Army deployment to Kuwait ended more than four years ago. Hoping for better luck -- she's yet to draw a regular paycheck since coming home -- the Lansing woman has chosen in some instances to keep her veteran status off the resumes.
Nothing seems fair about these times in which war veterans are struggling to re-enter the civilian economy. But one cruel statistic leaps out: For returning women, the jobless rate spiked this summer to around 15 percent.
On average, male veterans in the post-9/11 era are more likely than their female counterparts to find work, to collect higher salaries when they're hired and, according to some national estimates, to avoid homelessness.
The trends trouble experts and veterans' advocates. Data going back to the 1940s had placed our nearly 2 million women veterans among the most gainfully employed sectors of the U.S. population. At the start of the 21st century, only 2 percent of those wishing to work were unemployed.
One theory behind their soaring joblessness relates to shifting gender patterns in the overall labor pool. A recession that three years ago hammered male workers, earning the title "man-cession," has turned into what some call a modest "he-covery" that's keeping women out of work.
"Since the recession ended (technically, in the summer of 2009), men in general have added jobs while women continued to lose them," said Gary Steinberg of the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. A Pew Research Center analysis in July showed men picking up 768,000 jobs in the previous two years while women lost 218,000 jobs.
Additional factors hamper women veterans. Forty percent come home to children. Their rates of divorce while in the military are three times higher than for male troops, according to a report of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
They tend to leave the service at younger ages than men do -- and few segments of society are hurting more in this economy than are young adults trying to build careers.
"Is it the younger demographic or something else? I don't know," said Michael Randol, who served in the Air Force and, as veterans services manager for the Kansas Department of Commerce, helps veterans find employment.
"What I would say is that if you asked 10 employers to picture a returning war veteran, women probably aren't going to come up in eight of those descriptions," he noted. "We don't automatically think of women serving that role -- and we should. We're going to be seeing a much bigger influx coming into the workforce" as troop withdrawals bring women back from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Maybe the most troubling question in their struggle to find jobs is what veterans themselves cite as a factor: Are women who fight wars perceived negatively in the civilian world?
Were they traumatized? Are they prone to piling too much on their plates? Does publicity about post-traumatic stress disorder spook employers into thinking that veterans in wartime -- women in particular -- might crack in their cubicles or on a roaring assembly line?
Said veteran Bachler about her PTSD: "Are they thinking I'm going to go Rambo on them?"
Just when the economy tanked, in 2008, Valerie Brown finished seven years of active duty in the Army with an "I-got-this" confidence.
She had enlisted at 24, leaving a waitress job in Texas after the terrorist strikes of Sept. 11, 2001. She learned aviation mechanics, inspected Black Hawk helicopters in Iraq and, during two tours, served on flights carrying wounded troops.
"In getting out of a man's world, I was looking to wear a skirt to go to work," Brown said, and maybe start a family. "With my training, I didn't think I needed to go into college ... I thought it would be a snap, piece of cake."
She launched her plan months before leaving the service, filing online applications for office openings on Monster.com, USAjobs.com and sites specifically tailored to veterans.
"Never got an interview. Never got an e-mail. Never got nothing," she said. "I was willing to go anywhere ... I literally flipped a coin and landed in Kansas City," where she stayed with cousins.
Still searching for work in the summer of 2009, Brown launched Plan B.
She enrolled at the University of Missouri-Kansas City to study communications. "Here I am, 34 years old, unmarried and not getting any younger," she laughed with a roll of her eyes. Her student life has enabled her to hone organizational skills acquired in the military to serve on a leadership council of the Student Veterans of America.
"Sometimes these women who serve come back fighting to: one, get their kids back from someone's custody; two, find a home; three, find a job," Brown said. "You lose a part of yourself you didn't think you could lose ... that can-do notion" that carried her through a military that remains 86 percent male.
Brown is categorized by the U.S. Department of Labor as a "Gulf II era" veteran, or post-9/11. The government began tracking the employment status of those veterans beginning in 2007 and found curious differences that persist between the genders.
In 2007, the average unemployment rate for male Gulf II veterans was 5.6 percent. For women, 9.3 percent.
The situation has worsened for both genders, but more so for returning women, In August, when the national jobless rate stood at 9.1 percent, theirs hit 16.6 percent, not seasonally adjusted, compared to 8.6 percent for men leaving the wars.
The chasm narrowed last month, but unemployment remained 3.6 percentage points higher for returning women than for men, and 6.1 percent higher for female veterans than for female non-veterans.
Analysts caution against reading too much into percentage fluctuations within the female ranks, as those Gulf II era veterans represent a small number of the labor force -- about 400,000 -- relative to the male veterans.
While nobody has pinned down specific reasons for more women being left out, some point to recent reductions in the public-sector workforce. About a third of women veterans take government jobs at schools or tax-funded agencies.
"Employers won't say it. But, absolutely, I think a lot of them are afraid of some mental-health issue" among women who have seen battle, said Brown. Reports available on the Department of Veterans Affairs' website about high rates of PTSD and that "one in five women in the military will report experiencing sexual trauma while serving" could cause human-resource directors to shudder.
"I may have PTSD -- it's hard not to be affected by what you experience out there -- but do I consider myself disabled? Absolutely not," Brown added. "I might have nightmares, but I can still function."
Brown has seen severed arms used as splints on fractured legs. Bachler traces her PTSD to her reserve unit in New Jersey being dispatched to recover bodies at the site of the World Trade Center, 12 hours after the twin towers fell.
"I think there's a gigantic lack of understanding of PTSD ... and for women veterans this may be especially a problem," particularly if the person doing the hiring is a woman who hasn't served, Bachler said.
She added that many employers overlook the "soft skills" veterans bring home -- leadership, time management and organizing -- and assume women in the service spend their time greasing tanks. (For her part, Bachler managed a network of military post offices and dreams of writing novels.)
Last spring, she and other veterans -- men and women -- traveled to Washington to lobby Congress about the needs of service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. One solution, they said, would be to allow skills acquired in the military, whether aviation repair or teaching, to be certified for civilian work.
Of the hundreds of local veterans who showed up this summer for the Heart of America Stand Down -- providing health screenings, job tips and haircuts for the homeless who served -- more than 60 were women needing permanent shelter.
Stand Down coordinator Jennifer Gould said they hide their troubles. One veteran she counseled feared that Missouri authorities would take her son away if they learned he was living in a car with her.
As of March 2009, more than 30,000 single moms had deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, usually leaving their kids in the custody of a grandparent or other relatives. Upon returning, most have few options but to "couch surf," Gould said, until landing a job.
"There are problems out there, but a lot of it's very secretive," said Gould, a longtime Army reservist who last wore a uniform in 2007. "Women in the military are so used to serving and never, never asking for help...
"I was unemployed all last year, but if you asked how I was doing, I'd say, 'I'm fine. How can I help you?'ââ‚¬â€š"
Absent scenes on street corners of women holding signs saying "Vet Needs Work," some question whether those returning from war are facing the kind of crisis that jobless statistics suggest. Kansas City's BNSF Railway says it has hired more than 1,000 veterans -- representing 26 percent of the new employees -- just this year.
"We're not seeing it as dreary as all that," said Drew Myers, chief executive officer of RecruitMilitary, an Ohio-based company that helps civilian employers track down skilled veterans for hire. "We're getting contacted by big companies all over looking for that fantastic work ethic ... and wanting to reward them for their sacrifice."
He said one reason for unemployment among veterans -- male and female -- is that many "return to their homes and want to reconnect with their families, recharge their batteries, collect unemployment and relax a while. We're seeing that happening in droves.
"You might be thinking about having a family ... and while deciding if you should maybe go to school, you're collecting unemployment. After what they've been through, it's hard to fault that."
Teaming with the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, RecruitMilitary hosted a "Hiring Our Heroes" jobs fair on Thursday at the Uptown Theater.
And on Friday and Saturday, a regional conference of women's veterans will convene at Macedonia Baptist Church in Kansas City to discuss job-hunting and related issues, such as how to obtain free legal services and child care.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Donna Dopson may attend both. She's due to retire next spring.
Luckier than most, her work at Whiteman Air Force Base developed highly sought skills in health administration and information technology. But like many military couples, she and her husband settled in a small town and raised kids near the post.
Dopson, 43, has been putting out feelers for seven months "and the prospects look low around here...," she says.
"We may have to move toward Kansas City or commute a long way. It does weigh on me."
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