Senate Launches Post-9/11 Vets Caucus


August 10, 2015
By Gabrielle Levy

Members of the Senate vowed to improve the post-military lives of veterans who have served since 9/11, launching a caucus that will focus on the specific needs of young former servicemen and servicewomen.

Sens. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, Mark Kirk, R-Ill., Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., leaders of the Senate Iraq and Afghanistanimage of soldier Veterans Caucus on Wednesday, met Wednesday at the Capitol with representatives from companies such as Uber and Starbucks, which have actively sought to hire veterans.

House members, led by military veteran Reps. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii and Scott Perry, R-Pa., started a similar group in March.

Some 250,000 to 300,000 servicemen and servicewomen muster out of the military each year. As identified by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, veterans who served after 9/11 now have an unemployment rate of 5.4 percent as of June – down from 7 percent a year before and nearly at parity with the 5.3 percent rate of the population overall.

But the rate for young veterans aged 18-24 remains high – 23 percent of veterans in that age group were unemployed last year, almost double the rate for their civilian peers.

“They really are a new era of veteran,” says Ernst, who served as an Army reservist and remains a member of the Iowa National Guard.

“Many of them are well educated, many of them leave families,” she said. “When they return home, we need to make sure we are taking care of their health care needs, their mental health care needs, and working with their families, because it’s not just the service member affected.”

David Van Slambrook, now a partner resources manager at Starbucks, retired July of 2014 as a colonel in the Army. He said one of the key lessons that companies hoping to hire veterans can learn is that the resumes often don’t reflect the varied and technical skills members of the military acquire while serving.

“I spent the bulk of my career as a logistics supervisor, so although I had extensive experience in human resource, we do not use that language in the military,” he said. “Now [Starbucks] has dedicated military recruiters who understand veterans and can help them hire their career path.”

The Seattle, Washington-based coffee company committed in November 2013 to hire 10,000 service members or their spouses. Van Slambrook said the company had brought on 4,600 veterans to date.

Gillibrand said one of the areas the caucus would focus on is eliminating some barriers that can keep veterans from getting jobs for which they are qualified but lack certification.

“That’s the kind of thing we should be building into any bill,” she said, “if the skills you learn are the same as a degree that you need for a job.”

Lawmakers acknowledged that, while many veterans are well qualified for jobs and make excellent employees, others return home with scars both mental and physical that make reintegration into the civilian workforce an additional challenge.

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that between 11 and 20 percent of post-9/11 veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder in any given year, compared 7 percent to the overall U.S. population.

And for women, the traumas of serving in war are compounded by sexual assault and harassment, which the Department of Defense said an estimated 23 percent of women service members have reported in surveys that they were sexually assaulted while in the military.

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Women veterans also struggle to find jobs at a rate almost double men, at 11.4 percent. Gillibrand, who has made sexual assault in the military one of her primary causes in the Senate, says that trauma can have devastating effects on women’s post-military lives that communities simply aren’t prepared to handle.

“The homeless rate among military women veterans is extremely high, drug abuse is extremely high, and suicide is extremely high,” she said. “So they’re not coming home in a place where they can reintegrate into civilian life effectively because of trauma.”

She and Ernst agreed that services that dealt expressly with women’s issues were necessary – and frequently unavailable.

“It has to be specific; the old model of veterans services doesn’t fit them,” Gillibrand said.

Women make up about 15 percent of service members, and that isolation can make reintegration more difficult, Ernst said.

“Even beyond military sexual trauma and post-traumatic stress, if you have been away on deployment, when you hit that home station … you’ve lost touch with the members that you’ve served with,” she said. “You lose that bond and that connection and you don’t necessarily have the same supports as some of the men because there’s so many more of them.”

Broadly, the lawmakers and the employer partners said their goal was to do right by the young veterans coming home, often experiencing civilian life for the first time as adults.

“Our hope is that someday, young men and women will enter military service knowing that, whether they serve four years or 40, there is a seamless transition to civilian life waiting for them,” Van Slambrook said.

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