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Veterans injured in wars struggle to find work in battered economy

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World,Sara A. Carter

On Dec. 28, 2002, Army 1st Sgt. Colin Rich volunteered to lead a patrol along the eastern Afghanistan border with Pakistan. The events of that day would change his life forever.

As the soldiers of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment began their mission, insurgents in the hillside mounted an attack. Bullets suddenly ripped through the thin mountain air.

One round slammed into the back of Rich's helmet, shattering his skull and sending bone fragments into his brain. The injuries left him legally blind and suffering from grand mal seizures which doctors say are likely to continue for the rest of his life.

In the decade since the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan, roughly 50,000 U.S. troops who fought there or in Iraq have been injured. Of those injured, 16,000 are considered severely injured, with a vast majority of those men and women unable to continue serving in the military.

With the economy still struggling to recover from a long recession, many of those veterans who exited the service with a medical discharge are finding it almost impossible to return to the civilian work force.

"It wasn't easy getting back into civilian life," Rich said. "I can't imagine what it's like for the guys coming home in this economy. People talk about the 1 percent of the rich in this country, but there's another 1 percent who currently serve in the military and should never be forgotten. We need support not pity."

Rich continues with his medical treatment, while attempting to hold down a part-time job. Currently he works once a month as an Improvised Explosive Device instructor at a school training bomb sniffing dogs for the military.

But he has also become an informal spokesman for a much larger group of veterans struggling to return to the work force -- those who weren't injured but still have struggled in a tough economy.

"It's not just about us injured guys being able to support our families," says Rich. "All of us know the risks. It's about all veterans being given the opportunity to return to the work force and it's just becoming harder every day. Every one says thanks for serving, but few are willing to give us the jobs."

While unemployment for the nation rose to 8.2 percent last week, for veterans of the post-September 11, 2001 conflicts, the numbers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, topped 12.7 percent in May, despite recent veterans' job initiatives.

Some say the administration isn't doing enough.

Florida Republican Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, told The Washington Examiner that the Department of Veterans Affairs needs to do what it can to "ensure unemployed veterans know about the programs and opportunities available to them." His committee has introduced the "Hire Heroes Act" that which would expand education and training opportunities and give veterans tax credits. The legislation would also require the Department of Labor to aid veterans in transferring their military skills and training to civilian sector jobs.

As for wounded veterans, the Defense Department and VA must work more closely to institute a seamless transition and that "process begins with literally being at the bedside with their DoD counterparts," Miller said. "VA needs to be proactive, which means getting these men, women and their families, information about VA services as early as possible, and revisiting the subject with them repeatedly throughout their recovery. DoD and VA are still not sharing information, and that in the end that only hurts our veterans," Miller said.

In July, Congress will hold joint hearings on veteran unemployment, Miller said. The VA still has "a lot to do in order to reach the 880,000 veterans who are currently out of work," he said.

On Friday, President Obama unveiled a new initiative to aid both jobless veterans and those recently returning to civilian life. The program is aimed at increasing employment for post-September 11 veterans by allowing some service members to receive civilian credentials and licenses based on training they had in their military careers.

Despite Obama's recent outreach to veterans a recent Memorial Day Gallup poll suggests that he has lost a great deal of veterans' support. According to the latest poll, U.S. veterans supported Mitt Romney over Obama for president 58 percent to 34 percent.

Obama's lack of support among veterans doesn't surprise Rich. "I have zero, zip faith in the administration," Rich said. "All you have to do is look at the record, the record speaks for itself. I just think it's absolutely frustrating ... Many veterans are coming back to nothing."

Sara A. Carter is The Washington Examiner's national security correspondent. She can be reached at scarter@washingtonexaminer.com.

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