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  • LEZLIE STERLING / lsterling@sacbee.com

    Veteran James Earnhart carries his Army backpack with him as he walks around the annual "Honor a Hero, Hire a Vet" job and resource fair at McClellan Business Park last month.

  • LEZLIE STERLING / lsterling@sacbee.com

    Nick Winkley got up early to be first in line at a job fair for veterans. He snagged one interview, but no job, and his unemployment benefits are about to run out.

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The Conversation: Vets' not-so welcome home

Published: Saturday, Nov. 5, 2011 - 10:00 pm | Page 1E
Last Modified: Monday, Feb. 20, 2012 - 2:41 pm

Should the state do more and spend more to help military veterans succeed when they return to California? To comment, please use our comments section at the end of the story or go our facebook page at www.facebook.com/sacramentobee.

Aboard the USS Nimitz, Alex Martinez helped assemble bombs dropped on Iraq and Afghanistan. Now in civilian life, he's looking for any job he can get.

After nearly 5 1/2 years in the Navy, he was discharged and moved last year from San Diego to Sacramento for a fresh start. So far it has been sour.

Hoping for better luck, Martinez, 26, came to the annual "Honor a Hero, Hire a Vet" job fair. At the Sacramento Kings table, he asked about working as a janitor. He circled around other employers, but found that many required skills he doesn't have.

"I'm looking, I'm hoping, I'm praying," Martinez told me. Frustrated by the job search, he's decided to go to culinary school starting in January.

He and 341 other vets attended the job fair last month at McClellan Business Park. The next day, only a handful of offers had been made.

Walking around the job fair was encouraging yet depressing – I could sense the palpable hopes of vets to finally land a job, but I also knew the crushing reality of how relatively few are out there.

A week later, I sat in on a special class for veterans at Sierra College in Rocklin, part of a nationally recognized program to help them succeed in school – a popular option when the jobs picture is so bleak. But there's only room for 25 to 30 vets in the "Boots to Books" program, and it's only offered during fall semester. So I couldn't help thinking that, in the larger picture, it's barely a blip.

About 30,000 men and women leave the military and return to California each year. That surge will grow in the next few years as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wind down and as the military downsizes due to budget cuts.

Is California really prepared to help them successfully transition to civilian life?

I have serious doubts.

The timing is awful. The economy in much of the state is still in the tank. And the state's programs for its 2.1 million veterans are in some disarray.

Just before Thanksgiving in 2009, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger visited California troops in Iraq, heard horror stories about losing jobs, homes and families during deployments, and came away convinced they needed more help when they came back. In June 2010, he stood on the deck of the USS Midway in San Diego harbor and announced Operation Welcome Home, a $20 million effort to help veterans "move smoothly from the battlefront to the homefront."

It was one of Schwarzenegger's final signature initiatives. Soon after taking office in January, Gov. Jerry Brown dismantled it.

Instead, in August, Brown created an interagency council to build a "one-stop shop" for veterans to get all the services they need. The new leaders he put in charge of the state Department of Veterans Affairs say they're focusing on outreach and services, and they say they want California to be a national leader.

But that's what Operation Welcome Home was supposed to do, reinforcing a statewide network of county veterans service officers who are plugged into local veterans groups and programs.

A 2009 state audit concluded that the state department provides limited direct services to returning veterans and that it doesn't coordinate enough with other state agencies.

In wiping the slate clean, Brown put state funding for veterans on a roller coaster. Schwarzenegger and legislators added $5 million to the 2010-11 state budget for county service offices, plus another $2.3 million for Operation Welcome Home.

To balance the 2011-12 budget, Brown not only called for eliminating the Operation Welcome Home money, but also ending state support for the county offices to save another $7.6 million. After veterans groups and some legislators fought the administration, the current budget includes the same $2.6 million for county offices as in recent years.

Advocates plan to try to increase funding next year. They say the cuts have lengthened waiting times for veterans, who need help navigating the complex benefits system.

Pete Conaty, who lobbies for the California Association of County Veterans Service Officers, argues that state funding is a good investment returned many times over. Between 1995 and 2010, the $34 million spent has generated nearly $3 billion in federal benefits, according to advocates and legislative analysts.

But the windfall could be bigger. That 2009 audit found that veterans in California get less in benefits from some federal programs than those in other states with large veteran populations, such as Florida and Texas.

Though department officials insist that veterans will get the services they need, it doesn't appear likely that the governor will back a sizable increase in funding for more outreach.

"It's a tough time," Trevor Albertson, appointed by Brown as deputy secretary for veterans services, told veterans group leaders at a semi-annual conference in Sacramento the day after the job fair. "We've got to do more with less."

Vets face a tough job market

No matter the services and benefits, most everyone agrees the key to long-term success for returning veterans is a good job.

Yet, when nearly 2.2 million Californians are out of work, they face stiff competition. The unemployment rates for veterans age 20 to 24 (24.9 percent) and 25 to 34 (20.1 percent) are substantially higher than their non-veteran peers, according to state figures.

The bleaker job market was clear at the Sacramento job fair. There were 75 employers, including Auto Zone, Starbucks, Sutter Health, Taco Bell, the FBI, the San Francisco Police Department and several state agencies. That was down from 91 last year.

Nick Winkley of Roseville made sure he'd be first in line, arriving 90 minutes before the doors opened. Dressed in a new suit, he was apprehensive after all the disappointments in his job search. Older vets are struggling in this economy, too.

Winkley, 46, spent six years in the Army, left in 1989 and was laid off last year from Regional Transit as a maintenance mechanic. Except for a few temporary jobs, he's been unemployed and his jobless benefits will soon run out. Inside the job fair, he stopped by the Apple table first, then Aerojet. Five companies accepted his résumé, and one invited him for an interview, but still no job.

"Anything," he says, "beats being unemployed."

And he says just-returned veterans need more help re-integrating into society. "It's culture shock," he told me. "It's like going to boot camp all over again, except in reverse. That's why people stay in the military. They're afraid to come out."

Back to school for a leg up

With jobs so hard to come by, some returning veterans are going back to school to beef up their résumés.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill pays full in-state tuition and fees at public colleges and universities and as much as $17,500 a year at private schools, plus allowances for books and housing.

Most California vets in higher education attend community colleges. In April, there were about 28,000 enrolled and receiving educational benefits out of 2.6 million students in the state's 112 community colleges.

Sierra College has committed to offer more support to vets than nearly any other. Its veteran enrollment rose from 329 in fall 2009 to 520 in spring 2011.

Sierra has a Veterans Resource Center, complete with computers, a "quiet room" and snack bar, where vets can study, receive counseling and hang out. The most intensive support is "Boots to Books," the brainchild of Catherine Morris, a former Marine, and Michelle Johnson, a military brat whose ex-husband served in the Air Force. They are using their experience and credibility to give a hand up to returning veterans.

Morris says community colleges are the first higher-education stop for most vets, so colleges have to deal with all their issues, inside and outside the classroom. Many did not take college prep courses in high school before going into the military. Coming out, some have unique needs, including post-traumatic stress from combat.

She leads the class on strategies for success in college. On the first day, she tries to reinforce that the military values drilled into them – dedication, discipline, motivation – can boost them in the classroom.

Johnson tailors her writing class for veterans, assigning works by and about vets. Many students are reluctant to delve directly into their wartime experience. But once they read others' stories, "it's amazing how it creeps in," she says.

The program is a "learning community" where students take part in off-campus activities such as surfing trips, family bowling outings and writing retreats, paid for through car washes and other fundraisers.

The day I visited class, the veterans needled one another as they laughed through snapshots of a class-bonding rafting weekend. When they split into small groups to discuss how they're doing in classes, Jason Littlewood bragged that he's getting nearly all A's.

Littlewood, 24, spent 15 months in southern Iraq as a communications operator before leaving the Army in 2008. Since then, he's had a false start in college and a cancer scare. This time, he says, he's much more prepared and focused, and appreciates what "Boots to Books" gives him. "It's good to be with other vets in college," says Littlewood, who plans to get his associate's degree in 2013 and pursue a career in multimedia animation.

The program boasts success stories and some impressive results since it launched in fall 2009. Participants are more likely to stay at Sierra and do well in class than other vets and non-veterans.

Tana McMahel, 34, spent six years in the Navy, most of it on the USS George Washington aircraft carrier as an ordnance officer. Since her discharge in July 2009, she's worked as a retail manager but yearns for a job that excites her. She's looking at becoming a biologist, maybe in watershed management.

While those in the program are mostly men in their 20s, McMahel says it's helping her readjust to college life and recapture some of the camaraderie she had on the carrier.

"You just connect more with other vets," she told me.

Veterans have each other's back, but they're not getting enough support from the rest of us. Veterans Day on Friday would be a fine time for state officials to ponder what more they can do.

Governing is about setting priorities. Shouldn't the men and women who have fought for us be near the top of the list?

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Foon Rhee



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