SAN FRANCISCO -- U.S. Army veteran Walter Williams was homeless when he returned from tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I slept in my car and occasionally on other people’s couches,” he said. Williams had a job at the time, working at a group home for $10 an hour.—hardly enough to pay for an apartment in expensive San Francisco.
“Gas was crazy,” he said, and the bridge tolls alone sucked up a half hours’ work.
Then Williams lost that job and landed on unemployment. But just as his unemployment benefits were running out he landed a new, better job at Swords to Plowshares, a veterans’ service organization, where he helps other veterans find work.
Now, Williams helps organize job fairs, which gather dozens of veterans together with possible employers. Most of the veterans who show up are like Williams was a few years ago. They have jobs, but they’re looking for something better.
A 2007 VA survey found that 18 percent of recently discharged veterans were unemployed and that of those who had found a job 25 percent made less than $22,000 a year. And that was before the recession began.
“They said my skills are obsolete,” Marine Corps veteran Brian Anami told NAM. Anami, who attended the job fair, was looking for work in electronics. Anami was trained in electronics in the military but has spent the last six years working as a swim instructor and a lifeguard.
“It’s heartbreaking to find out that I spent all that time doing training, and then I come back and I find out that I can’t do that training anymore,” he said.
“The job search is really hard even though I’m a vet,” added Christopher Tajuma, who was medically discharged from the army after injuring his knee when his Humvee rolled over.
Tajuma also has a job – loading and unloading cargo overnight at San Francisco International Airport. But he wants a job that pays better and lets him sleep at night and work during the day.
“I think it’s because of the economy,” he said. “Everyone is hurting.”
But it’s not just the recession that can make the job search difficult for returning vets. According to a recent study by the Rand Corporation, nearly 600,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans have suffered wounds that affect their ability to think.
Rand found that 300,00 returning veterans suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or major depression, while another 320,000 thousand have sustained a Traumatic Brain Injury – literally brain damage often caused by roadside bombs.
“When you’re suffering form PTSD, you have all these triggers,” said Walter Williams. “Sometimes you don’t even realize the triggers. So you can be at work just doing your job and someone can make a movement or a gesture and just with muscle memory you might react.”
After his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Williams was diagnosed with PTSD. It’s something he manages on a daily basis as he tries to hold onto his job and help others.
“There are days when I might have an anxiety attack and I got to take a day and you can’t just let an employer know that,” he said. “I can’t let my boss know every time I have an anxiety attack. It’s embarrassing. It’s hard to be professional and have issues.”