WASHINGTON More than 15 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans were unemployed in January, far higher than the national jobless rate and the highest since the government began collecting data on veterans in 2005, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said on Friday.
That rate could go even higher if the U.S. military begins winding down operations in Afghanistan and a flood of veterans return home looking for work, a veterans' advocate said.
"These numbers need to be a wake up call for all Americans because there is really no excuse for this," said Todd Bowers, deputy executive director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
The government said 15.2 percent of veterans were out of work in January, up from 12.6 percent the same month a year ago. This compares with a overall U.S. unemployment rate of 9.0 percent seasonally adjusted and 9.8 percent without adjustment. The government data for veterans is only presented without adjusting for seasonal differences.
Bowers, a Staff Sergeant in the Marine Corps Reserves, said the increase is because multiple deployments have become standard operating procedure for a stretched military.
"You've got folks who are active duty, national guard, and the reserves who have done three, four, five, six deployments and that makes it extremely difficult to come home... and jump back into the workforce for a brief period of time and head out again," he said.
The 31-year-old Bowers was deployed four times and had to step back from active reserve so he could get his career back on track.
"I had just been jumping back and forth from Iraq to Afghanistan and then coming back and trying to get my feet into the workplace."
Senator Patty Murray of Washington state, chair of the Veterans Affairs committee, introduced legislation in April of last year to give veterans extra assistance after veteran unemployment reached double digits.
The proposed legislation would create and expand federal programs to equip and retool veterans for working in the civilian world and expand job assistance for soldiers going through the transition.
Economic Policy Institute Economist Heidi Sheirholz said that most military veterans are young men with less education, and jobs for that group have been especially hard hit during the recession.
She said the rate may also be higher because of a decline in construction jobs during the winter. And she said the rate may also reflect a sharp rise of 10 percent in the number of veterans over the past year.
Some fear that with the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan slimming down, and reductions in the defense budget, a growing number of veterans will hit the job market.
"That's going to be a tremendous amount of people jumping back into the workforce sort of unwillingly," Bowers said.
(Editing by Greg McCune)