Coming home: how war Vets learn to get back on their civilian feet

In honor of Veterans Day, NEast Philly intern Christeen Vilbrun explored the hardships many vets face when they return home to find life different than they left it. Christeen spoke with vets across the Northeast and all of Philadelphia to find how they are adjusting to life after war.

Imagine risking your life for the country you love by joining the military. After serving your time overseas, you come back healthy and uninjured, with a job lined up and waiting for you.

Unfortunately, this is not the case for many veterans who have served our country. The reality is that some soldiers returning to the United States have a tough time readjusting, and are shocked to see that civilian life is completely different than what they had remembered.

Kenny Dockery, who was a part of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan for the Global War on Terror, recalled his troubles after coming back in 2003.

“It wasn’t easy transitioning, it was rough. Not being in a combat environment, not being responsible for so much, and then coming back and being responsible not just for yourself, but for your family. It’s a lot,” he said.

Joshua Dillinger, who spent 13 years in active duty military, including one tour in Afghanistan and two tours in Iraq, shares the same sentiment.

“You’re used to always being told what to do or always telling others what to do. Readjusting from a military lifestyle to a civilian lifestyle, it takes a little bit of getting used to,” he said.

William J. Eves, a Vietnam War veteran, had a particularly hard time readjusting to civilian life, due to the fact that most citizens were against the war.

“It was very difficult, because at the time, the American public was outwardly hostile toward Vietnam War vets. We wouldn’t even wear our uniforms when we came home, because they would spit at us and call us baby killers and things of that nature,” he said.

But for Dockery and Dillinger, even though they were also part of a war most Americans are against to this day, they did not have to worry about hostility from the public. For them, the hardest part about coming home was finding a job and feeling the pressure to take care of their families. It took them both about a year to find jobs.

“It definitely wasn’t what I expected when I got out. I thought things were going to be a lot easier than they were. You come up with a good plan, thinking I got this job waiting for me, and sometimes it just doesn’t work that way. It can get really frustrating,” Dillinger said.

Dockery, on the other hand, thought he deserved better.

“You feel as though with all you’ve done for your country you should be first in line for something, but that’s not always the case,” he said.

In fact, it is not always the case for many veterans who have served in the U.S. military. According to a March 2008 Employment Histories Report, a study conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Abt Associates, Inc., many recently separated service members faced more economic and employment issues compared to their peers. Using results from a 2007 Employment Histories Survey, the study found 18 percent of RSS were currently unemployed, and of those who were employed, 25 percent earned less than $21, 840 a year.

The numbers are worse for former soldiers than the general population. According to a report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that came out in March, 11.2 percent of Americans who served in the U.S. military since Sept. 11, 2001 were unemployed—compared to the 8.3 percent unemployment rate for non-veterans.

The problem seems to be that these veterans are coming back to civilian life after they have been heavily trained in combat, learning some skills such as discipline, teamwork, problem solving and responsibility. However, they do not know how to transfer these skills over to the corporate world. This does not seem to be a new problem, either. For example, William Eves recalled having to settle for a menial job after his stint in Vietnam.

“At the time, the economy was pretty good—one thing about the 1960s was that there were a lot of factory and warehouse jobs. But, there weren’t many good jobs I could qualify for. Generally when you enter the military, your [specialty] becomes a springboard for an occupation after the service, but obviously nobody wanted an infantry—so that was something I had to overcome,” he said.

Of course, some people have no trouble finding jobs after life in active duty—especially if they remain a part of the military. Rudy Woolley, a Kuwait War veteran, was a supply sergeant in the military and currently works at Defense Supply Center Philadelphia located on the Naval Inventory Control Point Philadelphia Compound in Lawncrest. Today, he essentially works in the same field, describing his current job duties as having to coordinate how equipment for the military will get to its final destination.

“When I came back, everything was moving very fast. But, I was trained and prepared to serve in certain situations, so I adapted pretty quickly. I was working, so I never really felt the effects of the economy,” Woolley said.

It wasn’t so easy for Kenny Dockery when he first got back, but he has more sympathy for the new veterans coming home into the economy today.

“It’s even worse. A lot of private sectors are not as lucrative. You depend on funding or corporate sponsorship from people. Some things such as getting a house, a car or just approved for a loan is not as easy as some may think. A lot of programs have been cut out. A lot of the things that we were entitled to, that we had, they don’t. So for them its rough—with the economy that we’re in, its really rough,” he said.

However, there are still many services provided to veterans that they have the opportunity to take advantage of. The VA offers many benefits, including survivor benefits, compensation and pension benefits and Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Service, which is for veterans with a service-connected disability.

In addition, there are a number of different programs and organizations that specifically serve veterans. Vet Centers, for example, are located at many locations throughout the country. Joshua Dillinger works as an outreach specialist near the Northeast, located at 101 E. Olney Ave. There, the center provides employment counseling, guidance and referrals, among many other services at no cost to the veterans and their families.

Dockery stressed the importance of seeking the help of the many services offered in order for veterans to get what they are entitled to.

“Coming from war, you go through a lot of emotional seclusion. You’ll shut yourself from everyone else because you don’t want to deal with it,” Dockery said. “But in the end, you’ll find that you can’t do it alone.”

Christeen Vilbrun is a student in Philadelphia Neighborhoods, Temple University’s senior journalism capstone class, and she’s been assigned to explore the Northeast as part of an internship with NEast Philly. You can view her original story here.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal