Out of Iraq, National Guardsmen now battling to find jobs

Image: Guardsmen target new careers at home
Christine McCallister, who spent 10 months in Iraq with her Elkhart-based National Guard Unit, plans to enter a nursing program in January. Here, she gets her daughter, Makayla, 5, ready for the day at kindergarten.David Friedman / msnbc.com
/ Source: msnbc.com

Finding a job in this challenging economic climate is a pitched battle, not the sort of adrenaline-fueled forays that members of the Elkhart-based Indiana National Guard’s 1538th Transportation Company grew accustomed to during 10 months in Iraq.

That lesson is being driven home daily for many of the 46 members of the 182-strong unit who had no jobs waiting for them when they returned home more than three months ago. 

“I just like to work, so… it kills me just sitting at home,” said Spec. Jerry Vanest, 36, one of five members of the 1538th that msnbc.com is following as they attempt to regain their financial footing.

As msnbc.com reported in July (“When Johnny comes marching home – to no job”), some of the unit’s unemployed citizen-soldiers saw their jobs vanish while they were deployed in Iraq, something that many of them thought couldn’t happen.

“I thought you were like guaranteed your job when you got home,” said Pfc. Christine McAllister, 22, of Bristol. “I didn’t know they could actually lay you off while you were gone. So that was a little shocking. I know it upset a lot of people.”

Members of the National Guard and Reserves are protected by the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act when they are called to active duty. But that law doesn’t protect them when businesses are shuttered or forced to make deep cuts in their work forces.

And that was a common occurrence in Elkhart County last year, when the recession hit the backbone recreational vehicle industry full force as the 1538th was running convoys through the desert sands.

“Before we left … people said the economy’s getting bad and people were getting laid off, but it never really affected me or anybody that I knew,” said Pfc. Jonathan Maher, 21. “So when I came back home, it was like, ‘Wow, all these places are closing down, factories, you don’t see all these cars in front of them.’ … It was a big shock. … It blew my mind actually.”

Despite recent signs that the recession may be loosening its grip on Elkhart County, jobs remain in short supply. Several of the soldiers interviewed by msnbc.com said they had fruitlessly submitted dozens of applications since their return and often encountered “no work available” signs before they could even get in the door.

Sgt. Russell See, a 41-year-old welder who lost his job at Valmont Industries, said the only thing he’s been able to find is part-time work with his brother, chopping and selling firewood.

One job falls through, but another appears

Pfc. Jonathan Maher works on a truck at the Elkhart National Guard Armory on Tuesday, October 6, 2009, in Elkhart, IN. (David Friedman / msnbc.com)David Friedman

Maher is one of the lucky members of the 1538th, even though the welding job he thought he had lined up on his return fell through. After working odd jobs for a time, he secured a mechanic’s job at the National Guard Armory in Elkhart, a one-year posting that he hopes will become permanent.

“But if this doesn’t work out then, the way I look at it, there’s always going to be trucks on the road,” he said. “You know, you can’t get anything everywhere from a boat, a plane or a train. You’ve got to have semis.”

Also working is 37-year-old Spec. Joseph Dilts, who lives in neighboring Fulton County with his wife and two children. Though his job as a plastics handler with Plastics Solutions Inc. in South Bend was eliminated while he was in Iraq, the company offered him a position as a press operator upon his return. The only hitch: He had to take a pay cut.

“It’s disappointing because it just makes it a little harder to get by,” he said. “I mean I’m grateful to have a job, but it’s too bad I have to take the pay cut.”

Jerry Vanest, 36, has seen his paycheck dwindle to nearly nothing as his hours as a part-time cook at Applebee’s have dried up. He’s preparing to go to Ivy Tech in January to pursue an associate degree in criminal justice, but in the meantime he’s chafing at the forced inactivity as his wife works full-time as a nurse at a local hospital.

‘I feel so guilty’

Spc. Jerry Vanest works on home improvement projects Monday, October 5, 2009, in Mishawaka, Ind.. (David Friedman / msnbc.com)David Friedman

“I feel so guilty for that every day,” he said in the living room of their home in Mishawaka, where he occupies himself with household chores and home-improvement projects. “I wake up thinking, … she’s going off working real hard every day and she’s tired when she gets home, so I try to do as much as I can around the house to help her and run errands and get groceries and things like that. ‘Cause I do, I feel bad.”

Christine McAllister also is preparing for classes at Ivy Tech. In January, she will use her military education benefits to embark on a two-year program to become a licensed practical nurse. Then she plans to pursue her degree as a registered nurse, which will take another two years.

Just as Maher sees a bright future in the underside of a truck, McAllister said she is confident in her job prospects once she is trained and licensed.

“There’s always jobs in the medical field, so I’m not worried about that,” she said. “Once I get my degree, I’m good.”

(A sixth National Guard soldier interviewed in July, Spec. Heather Smiechowski, 25, declined to discuss her current employment situation.)

The scorecard for the five Guardsmen that msnbc.com is following – two working (albeit one at a lower wage), two heading back to school and one working part time – actually isn’t too bad given the current economic conditions in Elkhart County, said Scott Mitten, a former Army Ranger who now runs a job assistance program for the Indiana National Guard.

He expects there will be more success stories in the coming months, as more soldiers throw themselves into serious job hunts.

“The 1538th is still on their reset time,” he said. “We talked to a handful in the first couple weeks, but most of them wanted to depressurize a little bit and figure out where they are. They said, ‘Give us some time to settle down and we’ll come see you.’

“They understand the Indiana National Guard is here for them, and when they need a little help, they realize that there are programs to help them.”