More than 250,000 of these veterans were unemployed last month. An additional 400,000 have left the workforce to attend college or raise children, or because they have stopped trying to find a job, Labor Department economist Jim Walker says. The overall national unemployment rate is 9.7%.
"It makes you almost want to go out and rip off all the 'Support Your Troops' bumper stickers," says Joe Davis, a spokesman for the 1.5-million-member Veterans of Foreign Wars. "If you want to support your troops, give them a job."
Reasons behind the joblessness:
•Veterans are having a difficult time translating military skills — initiative, leadership and coolness under pressure — into job-application language that civilian employers can grasp, says Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. She has been meeting with unemployed veterans while on recess from Congress.
"These guys are disciplined. They're great workers, and we should be getting them jobs," says Murray, who is sponsoring legislation to improve résumé training, expand the G.I. Bill to include apprenticeship programs and assist veterans starting small businesses.
•Employers are skittish about hiring National Guard and Reserve troops because these forces are so frequently deployed for up to a year or more, which requires employers to hold their jobs open, says Paul Rieckhoff, founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
•Some employers don't understand combat-related illnesses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, how frequently they occur and how they are treatable, Murray says.
The majority of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans show no signs of these illnesses, according to Pentagon data. Veterans "are telling me that they know they should get this job, but it's like the person hiring them is worried that they'll have post-traumatic stress syndrome and blow up on the job," she says.
The high unemployment is forcing servicemembers to make difficult choices, Davis says. "People are making decisions: 'Do I get out now and go into the unemployment line or do I stay and be subject to another deployment?' That's a tough decision, especially for the families," he says.
Recruitment and re-enlistment numbers for the Army, lagging during years before the recession, are now topping 100%, according to Army figures.
About 20% of Iraq- and Afghanistan-era veterans report having a service-connected disability compared with 13% of all veterans, according to the Labor Department. Among those Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with jobs, a third work in the public sector, the department reports.
President Obama announced in November an effort to expand federal recruitment, training and hiring of veterans.
"They are trainable. They are intelligent. They know what the words 'responsibility' and '(do it) now' mean," Davis says. "Who wouldn't want to have them as an employee? All they want is a chance."