Hard times on Civvy Street

How to really help the veteran


Illinois legislators and governors have a soft spot for heroes. I know that because they do so much to create them. The administrators of adoption agencies that find ways to keep going when the state doesn’t pay its bills are heroes. So are schoolteachers who must buy their kids books with their own money because the state won’t, the legal aid attorney who can afford only one decent suit, the poor mom with kids who must cope with a sick kid because the public health clinic is closed on the only day she gets off work.

I’m all for the State of Illinois making life easier for such people. Unfortunately, state government’s official definition of “hero” doesn’t include most of them. That category of honor is pretty much limited to those whose contribution to society is physical courage, like firefighters or cops or soldiers.

Especially soldiers. Historically, the ranks of the world’s armies have always been filled with wayward young males who are a problematic social presence, tending as they do toward mayhem. Governments’ usual solution is to have lots of wars so the mayhem its young men love to commit is committed in other people’s countries. The problem, as we are learning, is that lots of wars mean lots of ex-soldiers, and ex-soldiers with no civilian future are a problem – a lesson learned to the cost of the U.S in Iraq, when Mr. Hussein’s army was summarily disbanded and that nation’s jobless vets became murderous insurrectionists.

This generation of U.S. soldier gets cheers when they come home, but not always jobs. The State of Illinois greases the skids for the job-seeking ex-professional soldier in a dozen ways. In July, for instance, Mr. Quinn signed into law a bill that boosted the credits that employers can claim against Illinois taxes by hiring veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Some of them need it. We hear a lot of blather about how military experience leaves vets with executive experience and technical training that sets them apart from the civilian workforce. It does indeed. It makes many of them less prepared for civilian jobs. I recall heart-tugging tales from the Desert Storm days. An Air Force vet in Chicago who was trained as a missile technician found on discharge that commercial airplanes don’t carry missiles and he was over-trained for a mere assembly job. An Illinois ex-Navy man from that era passed up a chance to go to college to enlist and take Navy training in electronics instead; he ended up commuting more than an hour each way to a job that paid less than $19,000 a year, because the training was specific to military equipment that no one uses in the real world.

The military’s recruitment come-on – that you will get training that will set up you for life on Civvy Street – is exaggerated to the point of falsehood. The State of Illinois, happily for vets, is a very forgiving employer. The General Assembly has decreed that the usual educational requirements to join the Illinois State Police are to be waived for veterans who have been honorably discharged after service in Afghanistan or Iraq, even though only about 70 percent of new Army recruits had high school diplomas in 2007. In 2009, when he ran against Mr. Quinn in the gubernatorial primary, Dan Hynes’ ritual bow to vets consisted of a proposal that public colleges be required to give extra points on ACT admissions test scores as credit for military service.

Lack of relevant education is only one impediment to hiring vets. May God strike me dead for saying it, but vets are not automatically good job candidates. Heroes there are among them, to be sure, and the best of the lower level officer corps – company commanders and the like – would make any nation proud, in or out of uniform. (Our general officer corps, in contrast, has enough time-servers, ass-kissers and buck-passers, which makes them perfect hires for most large corporations.)

Alas, many among the enlisted ranks joined the military because they had no better choices. They had trouble in school, or with the law, or have behavioral problems that make them a problematic presence on the job. Merely putting on a uniform is no miracle cure for such handicaps; most such recruits who’ve struggled in civilian life have trouble in the military as well.

Please understand that the target of my contempt is not vets but the politicians who pander to them, the recruiters who lie to them and the presidents and generals who exploit them in stupid wars – and don’t forget the public that fails to protest about all three on their behalf. A nation that really cared about its fighting men and women would be a little more careful about how they use them. Instead of asking what they need when our Johnnys come marching home again, for example, our state’s politicians might mount their pulpits to demand that Washington not keep creating so many of them to begin with.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.

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