By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/1/2008 11:53:59 AM ET 2008-07-01T15:53:59

The job market is anything but easy these days. But imagine if you were a disabled veteran having to deal with your injuries and reconnecting with civilian life while juggling resume writing, retraining and networking.

That’s pretty much the challenge many wounded veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan face.

Thanks to medical advances, soldiers are able to survive devastating injuries that may have killed them in previous wars, experts say, and that’s creating a large pool of disabled vets looking for jobs once they return home. They are also struggling with hidden disabilities, such as traumatic brain injuries and mental health issues.

There are a total of 868,717 veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and about 225,191 are collecting disability benefits, according to figures from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Disabled vets have a lot of unique challenges, and they have a hard time finding jobs,” says Paul Rieckhoff, executive director with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

He estimates that the jobless rate among his 100,000 members is in the double digits, with no sign of relief.

Little help from the government
The government and corporate America, he says, are not doing enough to help the men and women who were injured in combat find job training and job opportunities.

Indeed, the jobless rate as of 2007 for veterans returning from these recent wars is 6.1 percent, nearly 2 percentage points higher than non-military folks. While the jobless rates among disabled and non-disabled vets is about even, only 81.8 percent of disabled Iraq and Afghanistan vets are active job holders or job seekers compared with 90.7 percent of veterans without a disability, according to the Department of Labor.

Rieckhoff says the low participation rate among disabled veterans is a function of their circumstances. While some will never be able to hold down a job because their disabilities may be too severe, others don’t know where to turn for help.

“In general the VA has done a poor job of setting folks up for the job market,” he explains.

While the VA is not an employment agency, it does offer vocational programs to help injured vets find new occupations, said VA spokesman Jim Benson. The VA also operates about 220 centers throughout the United States that offer counseling and links to employment services, he says.

Raul Rodriguez served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2005, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. When was honorably discharged from Army in 2006 he received little help from the government in finding a job.

Thanks to the connections he made while he was still serving, Rodriguez was able to land a job as a field support manager with Raytheon, a defense contractor, when he returned home.

“I got lucky because they know my condition and they always give me time when they see my attitude is changing,” he explains. “It's hard to work sometimes because I can’t concentrate. I can't do a task like a normal person does. It takes me hours, if not days, to complete a task.”

‘Highly talented individuals’
Understanding employers are key to helping these disabled vets get back into the work world.

“With the right assistance and support, a wounded vet can do anything,” says Ryan Kules with The Wounded Warrior Project, an injured vet advocacy group.

Kules, who lost an arm and leg in Iraq, is now helping disabled vets reintegrate into the workplace. “There are jobs they thought they’d never be able to do, and these things need to be looked at on a case-by-case basis. But with help like special software, or just a bit more time to do things, they can go back to work,” he adds.

“These are highly talented individuals,” says Carol Harnett, a health and disability expert with The Hartford Financial Services Group Inc., which recently teamed up with The Wounded Warrior Project to host the "Beyond the Battlefield" leadership summit, a conference to help wounded vets improve their leadership and networking skills. “I have worked with well over 100 veterans. I can tell you these people have developed on battlefield skill sets that are critical for success in business.”

The company even provides a free guide for employers called: “Workplace Warriors: The Corporate Response to Deployment and Reintegration.”

Her advice to both employers and wounded veterans is to accept the disability and focus on the abilities.

Technological savvy
Other organizations besides The Hartford are looking to help disabled vets find jobs and careers.

A year ago, Rodriguez’s employer Raytheon increased its effort to hire disabled vets who have tech savvy.

While there are positions available throughout the company, Bob Foley, a retired U.S. Marine lieutenant colonel and corporate HR manager for Raytheon, says they’re in the market for disabled vets with degrees in engineering and science, as well as knowledge of computer science and logistics. (Check out www.rayjobs.com.)

“In some cases, they can work from home,” Foley says, adding that the company is well-versed in making accommodations for disabled workers and will do what it can to accommodate wounded vets.

In some cases, wounded vets who joined the armed forces at a young age, before finishing schooling or starting a career, will need to get more education.

While Congress is expected to beef up education funding as part of the GI Bill, many disabled vet advocates believe it won’t be enough to cover all the costs.

Education programs
Some universities and schools are stepping up to the plate.

The University of Idaho created the “Operation Education Scholarship” program two years ago to provide disabled veterans seeking a college degree with full financial assistance. “We want them to not have to work and graduate from school without debt,” explains Karen White, chair of the program.

Sessions Online, an Internet-based school for graphic design, just announced it’s offering scholarships for injured vets that will cover 100 percent of courses “for graphic and Web design, as well as Apple iMac computers and professional-level design software,” according to a spokeswoman.

Disabled vets should also check out the Department of Labor’s Recovery & Employment Assistance Lifelines (REALifelines) program, which launched in 2004. 

Michael Biddle, an agency spokesman, said 7,040 disabled service members and their families have received employment assistance through the program, which offers job counseling and job training.

‘Take a chance’
There are also opportunities in entrepreneurship.

Former Army Staff Sgt. Robbie Doughty runs two Little Caesars franchise stores, one in Kentucky and another in Tennessee.

Doughty lost both his legs to a roadside bomb while he was serving in Iraq and spent time recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which came under fire recently for its shoddy treatment of vets. While there, a newspaper was doing a story on the hospital and he was included in the article.

The founder of Little Caesars, Mike Ilitch, was so impressed with his story and decided to give Doughty the opportunity to open a location.

“I couldn’t pass it up,” says Doughty, who was pretty much given the store for free.

He has done so well that he recently opened up the second location, but this time, he paid for it himself.

The Little Caesars Veterans Program was launched in 2006 and provides qualified veterans a $5,000 break on the franchise fee for the first store, financing benefits and a $5,000 credit on the initial equipment order. Disabled vets can get the whole franchising fee of $20,000 waived for the first store and a $10,000 credit on equipment. More information is available at franchise.littlecaesars.com.

It’s been a long road for Doughty, who admits there were times he was upset following his injury. His original goal was to retire from the Army and possibly become a state trooper.

“After the injury, I knew things were going to change,” he says. “You have to be ready to take a chance.”

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