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A Tale of Two Working Warriors

Veteran Employment Trending Positively but Need Remains Great

One year after the veteran unemployment rate skyrocketed to nearly 12%, there is hope for the job prospects of America’s warriors, according to the latest monthly report released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

The agency announced in early April that veteran unemployment for March 2021 decreased to 5%, the lowest mark since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing financial downturn. The unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans came in at 6.1%, with the overall civilian unemployment rate similarly at 6%.

“We are encouraged by this news and hope the worst of the pandemic economy is behind us,” said Bryan Rollins, director of the Warriors to Work® program at Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP). “The last year has been challenging for all of us, especially for the wounded veterans we serve, and the need is still great. Yet we are seeing warriors’ resilience shine through, and for some, that is resulting in new, purposeful careers.”

Despite an ever-changing and difficult environment, WWP helped place nearly 2,000 warriors and family members in new careers between April 1, 2020 and March 15, 2021, with combined first-year salaries totaling over $92.5 million.

And behind every single one of these placements is a story of perseverance and triumph. A journey that no number can do justice. And perhaps most important, a call to action to others to keep moving forward amid the adversity.

“Don’t give up,” said Jim Kille, a warrior who landed a new job in September. “There is a company out there that is looking for your specific skill set, and it might be a little more challenging to find that company. But it is there. Just don’t give up.”

Purpose Once Again
Jim, of Honesdale, Pennsylvania, had plenty of reasons to give up, let alone pursue a career post-service.

After more than 27 years in the Army National Guard, including three tours to Iraq, he walked away with injuries to his back, knees, and eyes, among other visible injuries, and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a traumatic brain injury (TBI). The senior non-commissioned officer spent 26 months in a warrior transition unit where he received several surgeries and therapy.

He subsequently struggled with his transition. The nightmares of the explosions and car bombs he endured, and the memories of guarding Saddam Hussein as the former leader of Iraq stood trial at a top-secret facility, did not fade as Jim entered back into civilian life. They intensified. The PTSD became so severe that Jim went months, then almost a year, without leaving his house.

Fortunately, Jim asked for help and connected with WWP. He developed new coping skills and learned to better manage his PTSD and TBI through WWP’s mental health and connection programs.

But then COVID-19 hit. Jim’s life once again took a tough turn in May 2020 when he was laid off from his manufacturing job. As one of the newer employees in his department, he was one of the first to go.

“It was really horrible,” Jim said. “I was angry and scared.”

Jim doubted if he would work again, acknowledging his lack of technological skills in an increasingly virtual world. He was far from alone in these concerns. According to a WWP survey of the wounded warriors it serves, 41% experienced challenges related to their employment status due to the pandemic.

But Jim demonstrated his resilience and contacted WWP’s Warriors to Work program for support. He ultimately worked with career counselor Shawn Harris, who helped enhance Jim’s resume and connect him with opportunities that aligned with his background in security and military police.

The next several months proved challenging as Jim participated in virtual interviews and exhausted much of his savings. But Shawn stayed in touch and continued to connect Jim with leads. And in September 2020, Jim received the call he was hoping for: a job offer to become a security guard at a medical center in Scranton. He was elated.

“I was thrilled to be back to work to help support my family,” Jim said. “And also happy because I had purpose again.”

Jim recently eclipsed six months in his role and loves it. He also still stays in touch with Shawn, which Jim noted is a testament to the dedication of WWP’s veteran career counseling services.

“Once you get a job, they don’t drop you like a hot potato,” Jim said. “They walk you through (the process) and check up on you.”

Jim’s long-term career goal is to become a registered nurse — a goal he is not sure would be possible had it not been for the support of WWP.

“Wounded Warrior Project has honestly saved my life,” Jim said.

A New Beginning

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country in the Denver area, Cheresa Clark is still on the hunt for a job.

After about 20 years in the Colorado Air National Guard and another five in the Marines, including a few tours to the Middle East, she recently finished the last days of her active-duty service. Cheresa is one of nearly 200,000 service members transitioning from the military to the civilian workforce each year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Cheresa’s departure from the military was unexpected and the result of a car crash in 2019. From this crash, Cheresa suffered a TBI, PTSD with anxiety, and neck and low back injuries that continue to affect her every day. The TBI ultimately led to her being medically disqualified from the military — news she received in the fall of 2020. Amid the pandemic with nothing but uncertainty in her future, she froze.

“For a long time, I knew I had to do something, but I didn’t know what that something was,” Cheresa said. “The military has been my life for so long … To have it all stripped away for a cause that I have absolutely no control over, it was devastating.”

A friend encouraged her to contact WWP, and she did. Within a week, she connected with one of the nonprofit’s career counselors, Jennifer Carlson, and together they began working on Cheresa’s resume. More importantly, Cheresa said Jennifer helped boost her level of confidence.

“Emotionally and psychologically, she was a godsend,” Cheresa said. “It was just working through the process with her and talking with her, and her really reminding me when I had lost all hope that I still had value. I can’t tell you how meaningful that was to me.”

With a military career in public affairs, Cheresa is seeking communications opportunities that will leverage her writing skills. Although writing is still a passion, her TBI has made the craft more challenging. It is now more difficult for her to focus, and she operates at a slower pace. As a result, Cheresa is seeking remote positions that will allow her to work from home in a quiet space without distractions.

While Cheresa conducts her search, she is also using WWP’s mental health programs to help manage the stress of the transition and challenges of the pandemic. More specifically, she is practicing various forms of mindfulness to stay grounded, including daily meditations, affirmations, and journaling. She reminds herself of two important messages: baby steps are still steps, and to be kind to herself.

Overall, Cheresa is becoming more comfortable asking for help, leveraging the resources that are available to her, and remembering her value — lessons she has learned through the Warriors to Work program.

“So many of my reminders come through this program and Jen,” Cheresa said. “And her helping me remember that this isn’t the end for me, this is just a new beginning.” 

According to a WWP survey of the wounded warriors it serves, the warrior unemployment rate in 2020 was 16%, up from 12% in 2019. Warriors reported barriers to employment include mental health issues, difficulty being around others, and being physically incapable. Veteran employment programs like Warriors to Work help warriors and their families find their next careers, no matter the challenge. Learn more about Warriors to Work here.

Contact: Jon Blauvelt — Public Relations, jblauvelt@woundedwarriorproject.org, 904.426.9756

About Wounded Warrior Project

Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers — helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more.

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