When Earl Johnson was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army back in 2007, the adjustment to civilian life was tough after eight years in uniform.
“I’d been in special operations, where the missions took us to countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan,” said Johnson, 30, a native of Washington, D.C. “War is terrible. …It’s not the glorified thing people see on television. I came home and was dealing with stress, isolation and irritability. More than anything, I wanted to normalize my life and be part of the community.”
Johnson’s story is familiar to many returning veterans nationwide who desire to live “normal” post-military lives, yet face potential obstacles ranging from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), to securing housing and employment.
With a new wave of veterans back on American soil and expected after tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, these issues have taken on added urgency. Data shows that the national unemployment rate for veterans returning from the nation’s two wars has risen to 12.1 percent. There are also growing numbers of vets who are homeless, committing suicide and grappling with other challenges.
To tackle these issues, the Barack Obama administration earlier this year launched Joining Forces, a national initiative designed to enlist broad-based support for American service members and their families.
Spearheaded by First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, the program targets key priorities of military personnel and their relatives, such as employment, education, and wellness. It also aims to raise overall awareness about this group’s collective service, sacrifice, and needs, in a nation where less than 1 percent of the population serves in the military.
“Joining Forces was created to recognize and serve our nation’s extraordinary military families who, like their loved ones in uniform, serve and sacrifice so much so that we can live in freedom and security,” Mrs. Obama said during the kickoff ceremony in April. “This is a challenge to every segment of American society not to simply say `Thank you,’ but to mobilize, take action and make a real commitment to supporting our military families.”
The First Lady has continued that theme in time for Veterans Day.
Speaking before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, Mrs. Obama announced the promise of 100,000 new private sector jobs for vets and their spouses over the next few years.
Among the key players: the International Franchise Association (which represents about 1, 100 franchises nationwide) has committed to hiring 80,000 veterans and military spouses by 2014. Officials said 5,000 of those jobs would be designated for wounded warriors.
Additionally, the Military Spouse Employment Partnership – comprised of nearly 100 companies including Microsoft, Home Depot and UPS – has said it will employ 20,000 military spouses.
Mrs. Obama also touted the Veterans Job Bank, an online resource designed to help veterans and military spouses search for job openings from committed employers, based on their location and skills.
“When we think about what we’re announcing, 100,000 new jobs committed and 550,000 searchable jobs online, those aren’t just numbers,” said Mrs. Obama. “There are millions of Americans all across this country who are working hard every day to find new ways to honor military families’ service. …They’re part of the wave of support forming that stretches across this country.”
There was also employment news involving veterans from Washington lawmakers yesterday. The Senate passed the bipartisan VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011, which provides vets with job training and education while encouraging businesses to hire disabled and unemployed veterans.
“This bill is a jobs bill. Our men and women in uniform who have fought for our freedom shouldn’t have to fight for a job when they get home,” said Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), a member of the Senate Military Family Caucus. “We have a sacred trust with those who have risked their lives so that we may live in freedom. Part of that is making sure we provide them with the opportunity to support their families and lead successful lives. This legislation will help our veterans find a job or get additional education to get a better job than they had in the past.”
The legislation will offer tax incentives to companies that hire veterans who have been unemployed for more than four weeks, and will increase existing tax incentives for companies that hire veterans with service-connected disabilities. Additionally, the legislation would ensure that all service-members transitioning to civilian life receive the job training skills they need to find a job.
Four years after his discharge, Johnson, the Army veteran, has not only found employment, but a sense of community.
He and his wife now live in Baltimore, where he is active in a new non-profit organization for veterans known as The6thBranch — a take on the five branches of the military. The group, founded by and comprised of younger veterans, seeks to engage with communities in need and give back through service projects and the like.
“We had one neighborhood clean-up where about 250 veterans from local colleges and elsewhere showed up,” said Johnson. “We cleared alleys, street corners and picked up about five tons of trash. ”
Johnson is also is executive director of a housing foundation, Come Home Baltimore, which has helped to place several veterans in homes—mostly in blighted urban communities that are trying to rebuild.
“We think it’s a benefit when a veteran lives on a block. They can help to stabilize neighborhoods.”
Asked about the Obama administration’s initiative for vets, Johnson said he hopes more Americans will become more aware of what he and his fellow military comrades have done in the name of freedom.
“Because there’s no longer a draft, America has become so removed from war. Most people don’t really understand the sacrifices. They’re dealing with so many issues like the economy, that this doesn’t get their attention. But it should.”