A Hero Abroad, Unemployed at Home

Nick Colgin

In Afghanistan, Nick Colgin was a hero.

In America, he's unemployed.

Colgin, who earned a Bronze Star as a member of Fort Bragg's 82nd Airborne Division, has become one of the faces of the unemployed veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

His efforts in finding employment became part of history when President Obama referred to him during a speech in August that focused on the need to better prepare veterans for the workforce.

When he was with the Army, then Spc. Colgin was recognized for saving the life of a French soldier who had been shot in the head and for working with other soldiers to rescue more than 40 civilians from a flood. Colgin assumed that a stellar military career would transfer to his civilian life when he left Fort Bragg and the Army in June 2008.

But reality was much crueler for Colgin once the Army rank was dropped from his last name.

A combat medic as a soldier, Colgin found himself unqualified to be an emergency medical technician in Wyoming, where he had hoped to start a new, adventurous life.

"I had these grand dreams to move to Wyoming and climb mountains and do first-responder medicine," Colgin said. "I was a little naive."

In his speech, Obama said Colgin should have the opportunity to realize his dreams.

"If you can save a life in Afghanistan, you can save a life in an ambulance in Wyoming," Obama said. "Our incredible servicemen and women need to know that America values them not simply for what they can do in uniform, but for what they can do when they come home. We need them to keep making America stronger."

Years after leaving the Army, Colgin still doesn't have a job.

Unable to snag a single interview and after being turned down for even minimum-wage jobs, he's moved to Wisconsin with his girlfriend to go to school and earn a degree in English.

Work post-military

In Wyoming, Colgin was one of roughly 1,000 post-9/11 veterans competing in the civilian workforce, according to a June report to Congress.

At the time of the report, 8.6 percent of those recent veterans were unemployed in Wyoming, while the state unemployment rate was about 6 percent.

In North Carolina, Colgin would have been among 6,000 post-9/11 veterans in the state's population, but he may have had a slightly better chance at a job.

The unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans in North Carolina was 8.2 percent, more than a full point lower that the state's overall unemployment rate of 9.7 percent at the time of the report.

North Carolina, according to Employment Security Commission officials, puts an emphasis on finding jobs for veterans.

That's especially true in Cumberland County, according to Edith Edmond, manager of the county's Employment Security Commission, who said veterans actually have advantages not available to nonveterans.

For instance, Edmund said, when the commission first learns of a job opening, only veterans are referred.

A veteran herself, Edmond said she can understand the difficulties some soldiers may have in adjusting to civilian life.

"In the military, everything about you is on your uniform," she said. "You don't know how to communicate in just a suit and tie."

Getting veterans hired is a "personal thing," said Edmund, whose efforts include bringing employers to Fort Bragg and hosting transition-assistance classes.

Part of the problem, Edmond said, is the type of situation Colgin describes -- being qualified for a job in the military, but not in the civilian world.

Edmond said efforts are under way to correct some of those discrepancies.

"Nurses have to start from scratch," she said. "You get people who drove tractor-trailers on Bragg for decades, but once they get out of the military, they need a special license."

The Employment Security Commission, she said, is pushing to fast-track veterans who are qualified to do certain jobs with the military so they can do those same jobs in the civilian world.

Different on outside

At the time of Obama's speech, Colgin had been interning for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a nonprofit organization that lobbies for recent veterans. After the speech, Colgin made a whirlwind tour of media outlets advocating for his fellow veterans.

He used his newfound attention not to demand a job for his military service, but to lobby for better preparation of soldiers such as himself who leave the Army unprepared and with unrealistic expectations.

"Out here, your PT (Army Physical Fitness Test) score doesn't matter. I expected employers to be wowed by my DD214," Colgin said, referring to his Certificate of Release from Active Duty. "They weren't.

"You have these thoughts that you're going to get off and you're going to be set for life. The jobs aren't there. Even though I can save a man who was shot in the head, it means little moving out. It makes for a nice story, not for a nice job."

Colgin, from Chesterfield, Va., joined the Army straight out of high school in August 2004.

After training at Fort Benning and Fort Sam Houston, he came to Fort Bragg in spring 2005.

But Colgin didn't want a 20-year Army career. Just a few years was enough for him, he said.

Following his 2007 deployment, Colgin returned to Fort Bragg. Months later, he left the Army.

Colgin took classes meant to prepare him for civilian life, but he said he did not give them the attention they deserved. He said they did not hold his attention amid numerous medical appointments and a division review.

"I wish that I would have been better prepared," he said. "I needed somebody to step up, maybe put a foot in my butt."

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