By Naomi Snyder, The Tennessean
Terry Pack was an aircraft mechanic serving in the Army in Iraq, spending two of the last six years in combat overseas.
Now that he's done his service for the country, he can't even get a job doing oil changes at Sears.
"It's tough,'' said the unemployed Clarksville veteran, who was honorably discharged in January. "I've been looking for any job."
A congressional hearing this spring drew attention to the problem of high unemployment among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, with advocacy groups calling for more help for veterans in the federal jobs bill.
With Clarksville's Fort Campbell Army post just a 45-minute drive from Nashville, there is a steady supply of veterans locally looking for work at any given time, but many aren't finding jobs. The problem: They belong to a demographic hardest hit by the U.S. recession - young people making their first entry into the job market.
Last year, 21 percent of male veterans between the ages of 18 and 24 were unemployed and looking for a job, compared with 19 percent for non-veterans of the same age group and gender, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Young female veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan didn't do much better. Nineteen percent of them were unemployed last year, compared with 14 percent for young women who had never served.
Economists say young people, traditionally with a lack of job experience, are often hurt the most by prolonged economic downturns. But veterans often have lots of job experience compared with their peers of a similar age, complete with seven-day workweeks in combat zones and leadership skills to handle stressful situations, advocates say.
"There aren't awhole lot of 19- or 20-year-olds with several folks working for them in a life-or-death situation,'' said Chris Hale, general manager of G.I. Jobs magazine. "That translates well into civilian life."
With preferences in state and federal government hiring, plus job experience, it has been puzzling why younger veterans continue to have higher levels of unemployment than their non-veteran counterparts.
Pack, 25, said the whole experience of trying to find work is frustrating.
"There are people who wish they could hire me, and there are a couple who don't want to hire a soldier, they just come out and tell me,'' he said. "One said I made too much money (in the military)."
Pack declined to say how much he made.
Lately, Pack has been thinking about accepting a job that pays $15 an hour as a mechanic on recreational vehicles, although he'd have to move to North Dakota to do it.
During roundtable discussions with veterans earlier this year, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., learned that some veterans were deliberately taking their military service off their resumes when applying for work, fearing in part that employers might wonder if they had suffered post-traumatic stress disorder linked to combat, said her press secretary, Matt McAlvanah.
Others think the ex-military unemployment rate may be slightly higher because some young people just out of the armed services covet a break rather than heading straight into a full-time civilian job.
"Some of these guys will have $15,000 in the bank, and that's a lot of money for a 22-year-old," said Larry Slagel, senior vice president at RecruitMilitary, a veteran himself who hosts job fairs for other veterans.
Alex Padilla, for example, plans to take six months off when he gets discharged from the Army in a few weeks. As he puts it: "I was blown up in Afghanistan." He was injured when an explosive device went off while he was on duty at a combat observation post in 2008.
"I don't have a curve in my neck. You're supposed to have a slight curve in your neck and mine is gone. It pretty much messed me up pretty bad,'' he said.
Padilla still walks with a limp and carries a cane.
He is 24 years old.
"I'm doing physical therapy, and I feel like it's getting better,'' he added.
The good news is that Padilla already has a job lined up. He plans to enter a police academy and become an officer in a small Texas town. The job pays $30,000 to $40,000 a year, an increase from the $25,000 or so he made in the Army as a field artillery observer.
Stacy Smith has had a tougher time finding work. The 36-year-old said he got out of the Army in 2002, where he had worked as a construction equipment operator. He picked up a job working at an auto parts factory, but the company laid him off in June and filed for bankruptcy protection.
He has been looking for work ever since and has been living with a cousin in Nashville.
"I go to the career center and apply for whatever job I like,'' he said. "They tell me they'll get back to me and that's it."
He looked into a job as a truck driver at one point, but he doesn't have a commercial driver's license.
Smith has since enrolled in school to get a business communications degree from the University of Phoenix, a degree paid for by the GI Bill. But the new GI Bill won't pay for training at any local truck driving schools.
Last month, Murray introduced a bill in Congress called the Comprehensive Veterans Employment Act of 2010, which seeks to allow the GI Bill to pay for broader on-the-job training and apprenticeships.
The bill also would create a program to help veterans start their own businesses through the U.S. Small Business Administration. The legislation calls for a re-examination of the Department of Defense's Transition Assistance Program, which helps with resume advice and classes on transitioning to civilian life.
The proposal hasn't had a hearing on the Senate floor yet and with lots of other congressional priorities, such as financial reform, it's not clear what its chances for passage will be, despite support from powerful players such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin.
"Some (veterans) have been through a living hell and now just want a chance at the American dream,'' said Justin Brown, a legislative associate for the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, during a recent House subcommittee hearing on veterans' affairs.
Tim Embree, the legislative associate for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America group, said the civilian world is treating vets with "indifference."
"Unemployment rates are staggering and continue to rise dramatically,'' he said. "Our service men and women are doing everything they were told to make themselves valuable in the civilian work force. We must do better."