WASHINGTON -- US soldiers who returned from Iraq before Christmas often received emotional welcomes from family and friends at airports and military bases across the country, but after fighting in the war many face a new battle at home: finding a job.
In a typical scene, which became a staple of US newscasts in the weeks before Christmas, excited relatives hold up signs with messages like "we missed you," as soldiers in desert fatigues are hugged by children shouting "Daddy, Daddy" and a wife with tears streaming down her face.
American soldiers are hailed as heroes in the eyes of their countrymen. But those whose military enlistments are soon expiring could be pounding the pavement in search of work with difficult prospects.
The US economy remains anaemic, and unemployment has actually fallen a bit in recent months to 8.6 per cent, still far above the average of recent decades. About one in three veterans ages 20-24 is without a job, USA Today reported.
A major hurdle is that many employers don't understand the value of the skills and experience of former soldiers, Tom Tarantino, himself a veteran and spokesman for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), said in a congressional hearing earlier in 2011.
Former soldiers who do find work are often paid less than a comparable non-veteran. Tarantino said an IAVA member told him his job applications read like a war novel because he has "had to take what he can get."
Brandon Schoonover earned a finance degree after serving as a Marine infantryman but has been unable to find a full-time job in the two years since he graduated. His main work experience is four years as the leader of a 12-man squadron into Iraqi combat zones, he told USA Today.
"It's just discouraging," he told the newspaper while attending a job fair for veterans in Philadelphia. "I did a lot of hard work in the military and then went on to get my degree, but there's no willingness to give me a chance."
Many employers worry that veterans could be called back to service after they are hired. Others are concerned that veterans could be susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. The IAVA cites studies showing that between 20 and 35 per cent of soldiers who served in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan could bear these emotional scars.
These problems are manifested in higher rates of alcoholism and suicide. Tarantino said 59 per cent of IAVA members surveyed knew a fellow soldier who had taken his own life. The rate of homelessness among veterans is also higher than the population at large.
The Veteran's Administration, the cabinet-level federal agency charged with providing assistance and medical care for former soldiers, estimates that 30 per cent of homeless adults in the US are veterans.
Returning veterans who stay in the military also have difficulties. Though soldiers' income is higher than ever, their household budgets often are tight, the Washington Post reported. This is largely due to the high unemployment rate -- 26 per cent -- among the soldiers' spouses and partners, who often have to quit working due to frequent relocations or to look after children while the serviceperson is deployed.
The US government has expanded efforts to help veterans transition to civilian life. Showing rare unity, Republicans and Democrats recently passed a law creating tax incentives for companies to employ former soldiers.
With the Iraq pullout completed, the US is slated to remove troops from Afghanistan in the next few years. The White House estimates that 1 million current soldiers will enter the civilian workforce in the next five years.