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Uncle Sam may not want you back

Many reservists volunteer to mobilize when they fail to get civilian jobs - but military demand is dwindling

Dec. 11, 2012 - 01:00PM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 11, 2012 - 01:00PM  |  
Former Marine Cpl. Brandon Hotard stands in front of his boat May 31 with his girlfriend, Carla Guileyardo, at the Orleans Marina in New Orleans. Hotard, who was homeless for a time, lived on a sail boat in the marina and is now expecting twins girls with Cuileyardo. He is working temporarily at MARFORRES HQ in New Orleans but will soon be out of work again.
Former Marine Cpl. Brandon Hotard stands in front of his boat May 31 with his girlfriend, Carla Guileyardo, at the Orleans Marina in New Orleans. Hotard, who was homeless for a time, lived on a sail boat in the marina and is now expecting twins girls with Cuileyardo. He is working temporarily at MARFORRES HQ in New Orleans but will soon be out of work again. (Sean Gardner for Times News Service)
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Richard Evans, 27, of Stewartville, Minn., locks eyes with his daughter, Kimberly Evans, 3, while playing in their living room just before bedtime. Richard said, "We want to get out of here. Move away from Stewartville. But, we can't move until we have someplace to fall back on." (Theophil Syslo)

Leaving the Navy was tougher than Ashley Perona expected. Like many veterans, she struggled to find employment after separating in 2008, even though at first being jobless did not cause undue hardship.

A former aviation ordnanceman second class who served five years on active duty, she pulled in modest monthly drill pay from the Navy Reserve, as well as $1,800 a month in unemployment benefits.

She also tapped her GI Bill, which paid more than $1,000 a month in housing allowance while she took courses online.

But full-time work was hard to find. After nearly two years, with her unemployment running out, the 29-year-old Perona turned back to active duty and volunteered to deploy in 2009. The Navy gladly accepted, and she shipped out to Kuwait.

"It seemed like the best option for me at the time," she recalled recently.

Perona is among thousands of reservists who have volunteered to mobilize and deploy in the past several years — some motivated, in part, by tough financial times and a tight job market. They turn to the military as an employer of last resort, a place to again find steady pay and work amid a nationwide recession that has hit young veterans especially hard.

For veterans 24 and younger, the unemployment rate last year was 30.2 percent, nearly double the rate for nonveterans in the same age group, 16.1 percent, according to Labor Department data. And for veterans ages 25 to 34, the jobless rate was 12 percent, compared with 9.3 percent for their nonveteran peers.

Some experts suggest the problem is worse than the data indicate because many veterans, like Perona, have been returning to active duty, even if temporarily, to make ends meet.

"When they volunteer [for military duty], that sort of masks the real unemployment problem," said Ted Daywalt, president of VetJobs, one of the nation's largest online veteran job boards.

Some 13,000 reserve-component troops are voluntarily serving on active duty, Pentagon data show.

But some experts say the real number of troops who request mobilization for financial reasons may be much higher among the current total of more than 60,000 activated reservists.

"A lot of guys will tell their commander, ‘I'd like to go, but write the orders so I can tell my wife or my employer that I didn't volunteer,‘ " said Sam Wright, an attorney with the Reserve Officers Association. "A lot of ‘involuntary' activations are not necessarily involuntary."

Reserve-component troops may have a range of reasons for wanting their mobilization to appear involuntary, because that can affect their personal relationships, their position at work or status in the community.

"Some of them really don't want to go back to the civilian workforce," Wright said. "They want to string it out on active duty, either because it pays more or it beats being unemployed. But at some point, with Iraq over and Afghanistan winding down, they're going to have to go home."

Uncle Sam doesn't want you

While the military eagerly took most reservists who volunteered to mobilize during the height of wartime deployments a few years ago, the overall demand for troops is indeed dwindling.

The total of 63,000 reserve-component troops on active duty today is down from a wartime peak of well over 120,000. And the total of 13,000 reservist volunteers on active duty is down from more than 20,000 in 2009.

In part, that's because tighter budgets are forcing the services to cut costs at every turn — and an active-duty member costs far more than a drilling reservist, at least in the short term.

That has come as a shock to troops such as Stacey Lanning, a 41-year-old Army Reserve staff sergeant who has spent years shifting between the active and reserve components.

This year, she asked to go to Afghanistan, thinking that was better than facing the soft civilian job market. But this time, the Army Reserve said no.

Lanning believes she was turned down at least in part because she now has accumulated 18 years of active service and is close to the 20-year milestone for obtaining full benefits.

"When the money is flowing, nobody is paying attention," she said. "But when the money gets tight, everybody starts paying attention."

She spent six months collecting unemployment benefits before landing a job with a defense contractor in July. But she still hopes to mobilize again and clear the 20-year mark.

"My first goal is to get my active-duty retirement," she said.

Dwindling active-duty options

Reserve-component volunteers also are being turned away because Pentagon planners are starting to think that accepting large numbers of what are known as individual augmentees may be detrimental to readiness.

The Army Reserve is overtly discouraging mobilizations by individuals, preferring to activate entire units once every five years in accordance with the service's long-term plans.

"Based on the readiness focus, it's important … for everyone to stick together through the rotation process," said Maj. Angel Wallace, a spokeswoman for the Army Reserve.

"The piece that really makes it work is to maintain people in their units, having the right people at the right time and in the right place training together," Wallace said. "Those individual volunteer deployments take away from a unit's ability to have the readiness levels they need to prepare for deployments."

Another factor that indirectly plays into the military's thinking: Allowing reserve troops to mobilize and deploy often — in some cases, for two or three years at a time — is straining the patience of civilian employers.

"You can't tell these businesses to pound sand forever — they will just stop hiring National Guard and reserve members," Wright said. "We have to take into account the needs of the civilian employers."

Federal law strictly prohibits discrimination against reservists, but that won't change the behavior of all employers.

"There's a practical limit — an ‘Aw, come on, now' limit — to what they'll accept," Wright said.

Long-term consequences

While mobilization gives Guard and reserve troops a temporary reprieve from the tough civilian job market, it may make their job searches more challenging in the long run.

Out-of-work troops may deploy because they can't find a job, but when they return home, their civilian skills and social networks have eroded — making it even tougher to find employment.

There's a risk of creating a closed loop in which they rely on the military, which undermines their civilian career prospects, which in turn prompts them to rely even more on the military.

"Reservists have to keep civilian employment and military employment in some kind of balance," said Dennis McCarthy, former assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs.

"If you get a young person without many civilian skills or civilian contacts, they may rely to a higher percentage on their military side, and that may prevent them from developing," McCarthy said.

That proved true for Perona, the former sailor, who returned from her voluntary deployment to Kuwait in 2010. Single and with no job prospects, she moved to Michigan to live near Navy friends she had met on deployment. But she spent more than a year looking for work while collecting unemployment.

She finally landed a job at a call center in Iowa in early 2012, her first full-time civilian job since leaving the Navy.

IRR troops also seek duty time

Even some veterans who opt not to enter the Selected Reserve wind up turning to the military for work.

Brandon Hotard, 31, a former Marine corporal who separated in 2009, returned to his native New Orleans and fell on hard times after his unemployment insurance ran out last year.

A job offer to work as an overseas security contractor fell through because he was unable to land a secret-level security clearance. He slept on a couch at the home of an old girlfriend for several months, but "that went bad really fast," he said.

Hotard had used his GI Bill to study criminal justice at a local community college for several semesters but dropped out before earning a degree.

In 2011, he was making plans to move into a homeless shelter for veterans when he got a modest tax refund. He used the money to buy a dilapidated and unseaworthy sailboat that he lived on in a local marina slip that cost $1,800 a year and provided access to bathroom facilities.

That's when he turned back to the Marine Corps, which has its Reserve headquarters in New Orleans.

"I got to the point where I had $70 in my pocket," he said. "One of the prior-service recruiters posted something about needing a Marine to do something."

While officially a member of the Individual Ready Reserve, Hotard got orders to mobilize and spent four months doing administrative work. But that ended when the Marines began preparing for budget cuts.

"When this fiscal year started in October, everything changed," he said. "Now, if they put anybody on orders, it's usually a colonel."

Hotard has spent the past several months back on the job hunt, with limited success. He sold his boat this fall and moved in with his girlfriend. The two just had twin girls.

He's now doing "daddy day care" while his girlfriend works as a nurse at a nearby hospital.

Seeking a safety net

Even if they can't get mobilized for active duty, many unemployed vets continue to bank heavily on reserve duty to get by.

Army Reserve Sgt. Richard Evans, 28, has been jobless for months and struggles to pay rent for the apartment he shares with his wife and 3-year-old daughter outside Rochester, Minn.

Evans recently completed a law enforcement degree at a local technical school using his GI Bill benefits. But he's finding that jobs with police departments and security companies are rare in Minnesota.

His wife works part time at a Target store, and Evans is looking for any job he can find. In his situation, his reserve drill pay is vital. He used his most recent monthly check, about $330, to pay his cellphone bill, his car insurance and a bit of back rent.

"We're sitting on less than $20 to last until next Friday, when my wife gets paid again," he said recently.

Last year, his family "hit a real hard time," so he asked about extra duty with his unit. After a warrant officer got an official waiver on his behalf, Evans spent a full month on "active training" at nearby Fort Snelling, which paid nearly $3,000.

His Army Reserve pay has become essential for his family, prompting Evans to re-enlist through 2016.

"It's the best thing I've got right now," he said.

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