CHICAGO - Matthew Saldana proved himself in a world where stress, danger and life-and-death decisions were routine. He served one tour in Iraq and a second in Afghanistan. But the Army veteran is having a harder time back home navigating a calmer but uncertain terrain - the job market.
On this spring day, Saldana is roaming the aisles of a noisy ballroom in the Hilton Chicago at a Hiring Our Heroes job fair. Dressed smartly in red tie and black suit, he clutches a leather folder containing his three-page resume, joining hundreds of other vets looking for opportunity and a paycheck.
"It's frustrating trying to get back on track," the 29-year-old Saldana says, his soft voice barely audible in the din of the crowd. "I always thought if I get out the military, I'd be a step up. That's not what it takes. It's who you know."
Saldana, who left the Army in 2004, hasn't worked full time in 18 months. He's scoured "`help wanted" listings, taken college courses and earned an emergency medical technician certificate. But he finds himself pigeonholed. "What do you come out with having been an artillery man or in the infantry?" he asks. "The best job you can get is security. That's not what I want to do for the rest of my life."
Saldana's dream is to become a Chicago firefighter - he's been on a waiting list five years. He's survived mostly by working security; he's a fill-in sub at one company and also earns a modest on-call fee as a firefighter-EMT in a southern suburb. "I'm barely pulling through," he says. "I'm drowning. I need to find something fast."
His predicament is shared by tens of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans facing a rocky transition from the routine and reliability of military life to the volatility and limited job prospects of a nation emerging from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
Like many other vets, Saldana misses the Army's anchors: a sense of camaraderie and its steady income. "Here," he says, "you've got to worry about how you're going to find money to eat and how you're going to pay the bills."
And like many vets, he's now trying to find his way in an ultra-tight labor market, competing with millions of unemployed people, some with long resumes and proven records in the civilian workplace. Some vets face even more hurdles: job-hunting skills that are rusty after spending months, or years, in uniform. No college degree. And little exposure to a business culture that has its own language and rules.
"We've had to be entrepreneurial and innovative and think on the fly and manage people and logistics ... we know that we have the skills," says Matthew Colvin, who advises companies on hiring as a member of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "But it's hard to convey our worth a lot of times because we know it in military terms, not in civilian terms."
"Sometimes we hide the fact that we're veterans," adds Colvin, an Air Force vet of two tours in Afghanistan. "I don't think that's the way it should be. ... We've got more life experience than the kid coming out of college or even the guy who's maybe equally qualified on paper."
Vets aren't the only ones spreading the we-need-work message. Their plight has attracted powerful support from the White House and Capitol Hill to Fortune 500 companies, resulting in tax breaks, job fairs and pledges to hire hundreds of thousands who served.
Colvin says it's too early to gauge the impact of those efforts - some are just getting underway - on a population saddled with high unemployment. In 2011, the jobless level for those who've served since Sept. 11, 2001, was 12.1 percent, compared with 8.7 percent for the non-veteran public, according to federal statistics. Among men 18 to 24 for the veteran group, it was nearly 2 1/2 times higher: 29.1 percent.
In March, 10.3 percent of post-Sept. 11 vets were out of work. Colvin's group surveyed its own members last month and found a nearly 17 percent jobless rate. For those 20 to 24, it was almost 36 percent. Experts say these numbers are likely to grow as more troops return from Afghanistan and hundreds of thousands of people separate from the military over the next five years.
The anemic economy - the very reason some young people enlisted - is considered the main cause. But military and business experts also cite a lack of understanding among some employers of post-traumatic stress and a lack of appreciation for the abilities of returning troops.
"Employers immediately think the trigger part of the military," says T. McCreary, a retired rear admiral and president of Military.com. "They don't know or haven't had exposure to or forget there are a ton of jobs out there that have almost directly transferable skills - heavy equipment operators, machinists, welders, doctors, nurses, medical technicians, pilots, financial managers."
That problem is even greater than it was 40 years ago when more management and company owners had military experience, he says.
McCreary says some vets also struggle getting jobs at home using their specialized wartime skills - treating the wounded or driving big rigs, for instance - because they don't have the medical certification or commercial drivers' licenses required in some states.
Eric Smith is a case in point. In congressional testimony last year, the former Navy corpsman and two-tour Iraq vet detailed his high-pressure experience as a combat medic, heading a team that monitored a 20-bed intensive care unit. But he couldn't find a medical job when he returned.
"In the civilian world, my military education and training did not translate because I didn't have a piece of paperwork saying so," he said. "The resume that I thought would put me ahead of the pack actually put me behind."
Smith, who estimated the Navy spent more than $1 million to train him, described a desperate search to eke out a living, seeking out part-time jobs as a bartender and mail sorter, working as a day laborer, volunteering to be a test patient in drug studies.
He's now working on his EMT certification at a criminal justice academy in Virginia and has a job offer, according to the Iraq and Afghanistan vets' group.
Those kinds of stories have turned the spotlight on vets and accomplished something rare in Washington - bipartisanship.
Last year, Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly supported a measure that President Barack Obama signed into law that provides tax credits to businesses hiring vets. It allows for up to $5,600 for each veteran unemployed longer than six months and as much as $9,600 for those with service-related disabilities out of work that same length of time.
First lady Michelle Obama, along with the vice president's wife, Jill Biden, recently marked the year anniversary of their own campaign, Joining Forces, to help vets and their spouses, especially with employment. Mrs. Obama also has made a new push for hiring in and around military bases; her program announced in April it has lined up commitments for more than 15,000 jobs in the coming years, most in telemarketing and customer support companies.
The private sector has stepped in, too.
Some are small ventures. For example, Ray Sizer, co-founder of National Energy Solutions in Levittown, Pa., an energy efficient lighting and electrical contractor, says hiring vets is a major priority and he hopes to add 10 or 15 for large projects now lined up.
Sizer, a second-generation Navy vet, points out Levittown, a planned suburban community about 20 miles from Philadelphia, "was built on (World War II) veterans returning home. They all had opportunity. Now they're coming home to what opportunity? There's hardly any."
On a much larger scale, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has established the Hiring Our Heroes program, sponsoring about 150 job fairs around the nation, working closely with about two dozen major employers, as well as thousands of smaller companies.
In March, the chamber, partnering with Capital One, announced a campaign to hire a half million veterans and military spouses by the end of 2014. Several companies have already committed to adding more than 10,000.
Kevin Schmiegel, a Marine vet who founded and heads the program, says many veterans return to communities where they have families and support systems, but where opportunities are scarce. "Most folks leaving the military are really making a decision of the heart rather than go where the jobs are," he says.
That's especially hard on younger vets who enlisted straight from high school and have little or no work history. "A large majority are going into the job market with their eyes closed," he says. "We need to help them make informed decisions" so they know where there are growth industries.
Schmiegel says human resource managers and recruiters also need to be better educated to understand most vets with post-traumatic stress can function fine in the workplace. A 2010 poll conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management found 46 percent of those of those surveyed thought PTSD or other mental health issues could be a challenge when hiring people with military experience.
That survey, of 429 human resource managers, found 60 percent felt the same way about transferring military skills to the civilian workplace.
Caleb Wohlford never expected that problem. He'd been a cargo specialist in Iraq and worked for a cardboard company before deploying, so he figured he'd settle into factory work back home in Kokomo, Ind.
In two years, he found just one job - in construction - but that ended last October when business dried up. After six months of unemployment, an aunt told him about an opening at her factory. He's set to start next week, operating a forklift.
"I honestly didn't think it would be this difficult," Wohlford says. "When you get out of the military, they tell you there are all these people out there begging to give you a job (because you're a vet). There's not anybody. You're in the same race as everybody else. ... It's miserable being out of work."
The timing of his offer couldn't be better. Wohlford says his unemployment had expired, his bills were mounting and he and his wife were stretching her income from selling cosmetics from home to support six kids, ages 7 to 12. They also had no health insurance.
"It's an amazing relief," Wohlford says. "I almost can't wait to take my kids to the eye doctor. Now it won't be so much of a burden."
Wohlford `s success came after he'd applied for more than 100 jobs. He couldn't even get rehired at his old factory, though he says he left on good terms. "I didn't think they owed me that job," he says. "But I don't see how I couldn't meet the requirements. I don't see how anyone could better meet the requirements."
He's grateful, too, for the new opportunity, knowing his family connection was crucial. "I got lucky," he says. "I knew somebody in the right place."
Marcus Washington is hoping for his break, having returned from Iraq last fall after his third tour.
While scouting out potential employers at the Chicago job fair, he confessed that after being in the Army much of the last 11 years, looking for work is "somewhat intimidating .. Military experience should count for something. If you weigh it on a scale, it should be the same as a college degree."
After one tour in Iraq, Washington, 30, became a prison guard in Arkansas, but didn't like the atmosphere, so he re-enlisted, he says, partly because of the regular salary.
Washington says he's taking job tips from his fiancée, a human resources manager, but it takes some adjustment. "When you trade your combat boots for a shirt and tie and you hope someone hires you, it's hard convincing them and," he says, "it's hard convincing myself that I can compete for a job."
Matthew Pizzo has the confidence, but it hasn't made a difference - yet.
He enlisted at 17 - he was scheduled to report for basic training on Sept. 11, 2001 - and when he finished his Air Force duty in Iraq, he earned a bachelor's degree in international business at the University of Colorado. He started looking for work before graduation but didn't know how to write a good resume or how to network.
"I never got any training on how the civilian world operates," he says. "Nothing prepared me." The military has an extensive transition assistance program to smooth the way out of the military, but Pizzo says when he left in 2005, it offered little guidance. Despite improvements, some vets still believe more needs to be done.
Acting on a professor's suggestion, Pizzo enrolled in New York Law School and graduated last May, immediately scoping out legal, business and financial firms. He had military training. He'd handled stressful situations, managed projects and operated with limited resources. He had two degrees. He figured that was a good foundation for a promising career.
Some 75 resumes later, he's still looking. Businesses, he says, see his credentials and conclude: "'It would be risky to assume you could apply those skills in an office setting.'"
One potential employer, he says, surprised him by saying: `"You're a little old to try to start working in the banking industry.'" The 29-year-old, he suggested, might be uncomfortable taking orders from a younger boss.
Pizzo senses trepidation, too, from prospective bosses, who may be leery of his wartime experience. "I think they're probably concerned, or at least it's in the back of people's minds that I won't be able operate in their landscape, maybe because of things I've seen."
Pizzo figures he'd have a better shot if he'd gone the traditional college-work route, and made connections along the way. "It would be rare to find five people on a base who know five people on Wall Street," he says.
When he recently lobbied in Washington with other members of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a colonel told him companies are eager to hire veterans and mentioned one financial firm. Coincidentally, Pizzo had already applied there. When he came home, he had a rejection letter.
Pizzo presses on, certain he has much to offer.
"Whoever gives me the opportunity," he says, "will hit the jackpot."