Coming Back From Iraq

IT’S HARD TO MISS the dramatic contrast between the way the nation dealt with returning Vietnam vets more than three decades ago and the reaction to soldiers today, with stories peppering the Internet, even before Thanksgiving, about first-class airline passengers offering their seats to servicemen, and so many Web sites and blogs cropping up to send holiday care packages and support letters to soldiers that it was impossible to determine their number.

But some things seem all too familiar, from widespread psychological problems among vets to a desertion rate in the Army that has jumped 80 percent since 2003. Let’s face it, going from a dark alley in Fallujah to looking for a job on Wilshire Boulevard must be bizarre.

California is home to some 2.2 million veterans, more than any other state, and it has spawned a massive cottage industry of nonprofit and government organizations dedicated to finding, counseling, training and placing vets back into civilian jobs. And vets want to work, as shown by a recent “Hire a Hero, Hire a Vet” job fair in Long Beach that drew roughly 1,200 job seekers. The job fair was open to all, since it was sponsored by the state Employment Development Division, but Eddie Purtuas, an employment-program manager for the EDD, said up to 70 percent of the crowd were vets from Iraq or Afghanistan.

“We are strictly dedicated to working with veterans to help them get jobs once they get out of the service,” says Purtuas of the job fair, where more than 120 employers included the Mike Diamond plumbing outfit, Boeing, Verizon, Hyatt Regency, FedEx, Home Depot, U-Haul, UPS, Union Pacific Railroad and the Transportation Security Administration.

Not unexpectedly, a lot of Iraq veterans seek jobs in security, and a surprising number of vets take jobs helping other vets. Chris Mandia, 28, a Marine from San Pedro, served two tours in Iraq, including during the initial invasion and the infamous Battle of Fallujah. He says, matter-of-factly, that when he returned, “I had nothing going for me, but the Marines stick together.” After he was honorably discharged, he fell into a conversation with a representative from the California state employment division, and suddenly found himself with a job helping other vets transition — something he happens to know a lot about.

The advice and training offered to Iraq and Afghanistan vets is incredibly basic, he says, citing a list of the ground-level help he offers: “How to prepare for a job interview. To attend job fairs like the one that we had in Long Beach the other day. About Cal Jobs [the state’s online job site that lists hundreds of available positions]. Basically, help them get their act together.”

Mandia says the state of California offers a lot of taxpayer-funded benefits that many vets don’t know about. For example, vets can register online on a statewide job-candidate list that is regularly reviewed by private and government employers (at In Los Angeles County, the word is getting out, and 21,000 returning vets have signed up with the job search and placement service in recent years.

Still, the state wants to locate far more soldiers — and businesses continue to clamor for a chance to hire a vet. EDD Director Patrick Henning says vets are considered desirable job candidates because they are often “women and men who have not only developed high-level job skills but, equally important, the discipline, loyalty, leadership and work ethic that make them such highly valued employees.”

Michael Dolphin, another EDD official, recalls how it was when he returned as a veteran from the Vietnam War: “When I came back, I didn’t wear the uniform,” Dolphin says.

Back in the 1970s, veterans returning home were often treated like scum, called dirtbags and baby killers, and made to feel ashamed to even wear their uniforms. (On my own block in Gardena, two young men were killed, and my neighbor Lee Sanchez Jr. came home full of shrapnel. I never thanked him for serving his country.)

“But times are different now,” says Dolphin. “Back then, I just looked for a job like everyone else. But now, returning vets are getting more help.” Vets who want to work in the public and civil-service sectors, for instance, get a leg up on other candidates. In often high-paying government jobs, strict testing procedures determine whether a candidate will be seriously considered. Today, simply being a vet can earn a person automatic “veterans’ preference points” — meaning an extra two to five points on a graded interview — an edge that can put vets ahead of others trying to find government jobs.

AND HELP IS OUT THERE not just for the newly returning vets. Mandia, who is set to earn a bachelor’s degree in English from Loyola Marymount next month, says he often works with Vietnam veterans who are “still lost 40 years after they left the war in Southeast Asia.”

Some Vietnam veterans are pleased that the new generation of vets is getting the special treatment that many of them never received. “I never felt welcome back when I came back from ’Nam,” says Michael Renna, who lugged a 25-pound radio as a radio-telephone operator in Vietnam, darting among water buffalo and snipers, in 1968 and ’69. “There was no parade for us when we came back. Nobody said ‘Thank you’ except your immediate people. I never thought anyone appreciated what we tried to do for them. But I am happy that these guys, these kids in Iraq, are getting some respect. They sure as hell deserve it.”

And Iraq veterans agree. Ben Steeples, a California Marine who was discharged in 2002, credits the large and active Vietnam-veteran population in California with creating the good will and decent treatment he has received from society since he got back. Says Steeples, “My experience has been very positive, and I would say it is like 180 degrees different from the experience that the Vietnam veterans had to deal with — being called names and all.”

Although many people tell him “they are so against the war,” once he identifies himself as a Marine who served in Iraq, they thank him anyway. “You can be against the war and the politics, but I have not met anyone against the individual Marine, solder, sailor or airman,” he says.

Despite the softer landing experienced by this new generation of vets, a recent Pentagon study says that depression and family crises hit these soldiers months after they get back, rather than in the first upbeat weeks at home. While finding jobs and trying to adjust, a third of the 88,000 returning soldiers studied began to suffer depression, post-traumatic stress disorder — and a steep spike in interpersonal problems with loved ones.Although many troops don’t want to talk about what happened to them over there, others try to get it all out. One of those, Juan Ayala, 27, from Long Beach, a crew chief on a Blackhawk helicopter, recalls how “being in Iraq, in Mosul and Kirkuk, was a big change in the way I see things. So many things I saw. Good and bad. Horrible things. I could spend a day talking to you about Iraq.”

Ayala, who left the military in February, says he is attending a special school in Riverside to get his license to work on and fly airplanes. He also works with the EDD to help other veterans get jobs. Steeples, the Marine, says both Veterans Affairs and the EDD greatly helped him cope with civilian life, and he recently graduated from Cal State Long Beach with a degree in film and electronic media.

Dan Caulfield, a Marine from Washington, D.C., who is the executive director of the nonprofit organization Hire a Hero, which is funded mostly by public donations and offers educational scholarships, says the idea is to provide soldiers much more than a chance at a job.

“Anyone who gives a shit about the military knows or would know what it’s like to be in combat,” says Caulfield. “Of course, it is unnatural to be killing people or see your friends get killed. So the move from the battlefield to the job world is often strange. Anyone who has seen combat, seen what people can do to other people — well, it’s traumatic. We try to help people reintegrate. We want to create a situation where the support for the troops is more than putting a yellow ribbon on their car.”

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