TULSA, Okla. — This is what the end of a decade of war looked like in Oklahoma a few weeks ago: Ex-soldiers in cheap new business suits; human resources managers with salesman smiles and stacks of glossy fliers; a former Marine speaking to a television news crew about the “tough times" and “nightmares" he has had since coming home.
Capt. Mike Bolton moved through the hundreds gathered at the convention center with a black binder of 41 résumés. It was yet another veterans’ job fair. How many had he been to since his battalion returned from Afghanistan last spring? Twenty? Thirty? Bolton’s job is to help his fellow Army National Guard soldiers find careers after their combat tours. “If you want bodies," he tells potential employers over and over, “I am the person you need to call."
Everyone says they want to hire veterans. Big U.S. firms have pledged through the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to hire more than 200,000 over the next five years. Congress has delivered tax credits worth as much as $5,600 to any business willing to hire an unemployed veteran and $9,600 if the vet is disabled.
President Barack Obama has made the moral case. “No one who fights for this country overseas should ever have to fight for a job," he said as he laid a wreath last fall in Arlington National Cemetery.
Here in Oklahoma, Bolton knows better. When hiring managers flip through his binder of résumés, they aren’t thinking about whether the nation has an obligation to its combat veterans. They are weighing whether they can really afford to take on one more employee in this uncertain economy, whether it makes sense to wait just a few more months.
The questions that consume Bolton, meanwhile, are specific to a population of ex-soldiers struggling with a particular set of postwar problems. How can he help a solid Guard captain with a forgettable résumé shine? How does he find a job for a 35-year-old soldier who can’t remember to pay her electricity bill? What can he do to help a soldier hold on to his job when he says he was “hating humanity" when he came home from combat?
Each of these questions is, in its own way, a legacy of America’s wars.
Employers not biting
At first, Bolton didn’t think it would be hard to find work for Guard soldiers. He knew that the unemployment rate for post-Sept. 11 veterans was high — 9.4 percent in February, compared with 7.7 percent for the general population, according to the Labor Department. But Oklahoma’s oil and gas sector was booming.
Elsewhere Americans were weary of the wars, but in Oklahoma, support for the 45th Brigade seemed strong. The unit suffered 14 deaths in Afghanistan during a tough stretch of fighting in the fall of 2011. Each of the losses was covered on local television news and mourned in moments of silence at high school football games. When the brigade came home in the spring, cheering, hooting, whistling crowds were there. “I just can’t tell you how proud we are of you," the governor said.
Eleven months later, the cheering over, the war back to being an afterthought, Bolton invited Capt. Monte Johnson, 35, to lunch to talk about his job search. Johnson was still wearing his black pinstripe suit from a morning hiring fair. He was a solid officer with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. In November, his commanders had selected him to lead a 99-soldier artillery battery.
But there was little about him that grabbed employers’ attention. “It’s a huge issue for soldiers," Bolton said. “He’s done so much in Afghanistan, but he can’t make employers see it." Johnson’s college degree was in sociology. “It’s not something that employers value," said a state career counselor who looked over his résumé. His work experience outside the Guard was thin.
On those rare occasions when he landed an interview, he scoured the company’s website for three to five facts that he could work into the discussion. The tip had come from the Army’s Transition Assistance Program, a five-day career-counseling workshop for soldiers returning from active duty. Johnson volunteered to go through the program twice.
“I think he wants it so bad that he is overanalyzing everything," Bolton said.
Johnson has thick, black hair cropped close to his head, military style. He has put on a little weight since coming back from the war. As he took a call from his wife, Bolton began hatching a plan for the afternoon that definitely wasn’t in any of the Transition Assistance Program PowerPoint briefs. A friend had mentioned that the Boy Scouts of America had an entry-level job open in Oklahoma City. Bolton stepped away to make a call. Five minutes later, he was back.
“Are you ready for this?" he asked.
“Ready for what?" Johnson replied.
“An interview," Bolton said.
The Boy Scouts’ headquarters is a two-story brick building on the outskirts of the city. Bolton asked for the office receptionist, whose name was scribbled on his hand. “My best friend’s husband is an Air Force pilot," she said as she led them to the second-floor offices. “He’s playing in the sand over there now."
The elevator doors slid open. “Thank you for what you do," she said to Bolton and Johnson.
They waited. A secretary emerged to tell them that the Scout executive, who runs the Oklahoma City office, was too busy to see them. Bolton, however, wasn’t ready to quit.
Back at the front desk, he asked for the deputy executive. He was traveling, but the receptionist gave Bolton his cellphone number. Bolton had worked for the Boy Scouts a decade earlier and knew they were about to start their hectic fundraising season. He dialed from the car.
“I am going to give you a gift," he told the deputy. “I have someone who is ready immediately."
“That was smart," Johnson whispered.
Bolton quizzed the deputy on the opening and dropped some names from his days with the organization. Johnson stared out the car window at the afternoon traffic. “We really want to make sure we give this guy an opportunity," Bolton was saying. “Go out to lunch with him, brother to brother. I don’t want to rush you, but I don’t want you to lose out on an opportunity. If you wait, I will have him placed in another company."
Bolton hung up the phone and the car fell quiet. Johnson had caught enough of the conversation to realize that the Boy Scouts were probably not going to call.
Some of Bolton’s soldiers are dealing with problems far deeper than not making an impression. One is Spec. Rebecca Shorter. As she waited to see Bolton, the 35-year-old soldier tore into the first of two sealed bills from the power company that had been sitting in her mailbox for more than a week.
“Ouch," she said as she looked at the first one. “I wasn’t expecting it to be that big." She took a deep breath and opened the second envelope, glancing quickly at the words “FINAL DISCONNECT NOTICE," written across the top. She tucked it under the other bill.
Bolton had called her in to meet with the battalion’s social worker and talk to him. “She’s a very hard one," he said. “We all come back different." Shorter’s résumé said she worked for Wal-Mart for 14 years and left the company in 2010 shortly after returning from Iraq. Her commanders said she was a good soldier who never missed weekend drill.
But every interview Bolton sent her on had been a disaster.
“Disconnected and very distracted" were the words a telemarketing company used to describe her.
She broke down in the office of a recruiter who gave her a sandwich and $13. “I did what I could at the time, that’s my Christian duty," the recruiter later said. “I can’t babysit."
She was an hour late calling a staffing agency manager who had agreed to help her with her interview technique. “If she can’t call me at the scheduled time or even close to it, then she can figure things out on her own," the manager wrote to Bolton in an email.
In Iraq, Shorter had worked 12-hour shifts, six days a week amid regular rocket fire at a U.S. base north of Baghdad. When the incoming sirens sounded, she would slide under her bed for cover or rush to a dark concrete bunker. After a year at the base, she volunteered to stay for another 12 months. At home, the Department of Veterans Affairs was helping Shorter handle her stress and anxiety.
Bolton worried that sending her out on interviews was hurting his reputation with companies that might be willing to hire his other soldiers. He also believed that her service in Iraq entitled her to something better than her current job as a mall security guard.
So he placed another call: “I am not asking for anything special here," he told a human resources manager from a trucking company. “She’s way behind on her rent and her car payment. Can you just look at her résumé?"
Around Bolton, Shorter was stiff and a bit distant. She struggled to explain why she had stayed so long in Iraq. “I wouldn’t be able to tell you," she said. Or why she was behind on her power bills, car payment and rent. “Huge, long story," she said before launching into a huge, long, confusing story.
It was late on a Saturday afternoon, and the soldiers, who had gathered for their monthly drill, were about to be dismissed for the day. Bolton sent Shorter home to an apartment that was two days away from having its power cut off. “These are the ones that wear on you," he said.
Holding a job
Bolton has helped more than 180 Guard members find jobs in manufacturing, logistics and fast-food restaurants. The average pay is $32,000, less than the brigade’s lower-ranking soldiers made in Afghanistan. In January, Bolton met with Staff Sgt. Sal Keizer at an oil-equipment manufacturer near Tulsa. Bolton had helped Keizer get the $15-an-hour job. Now he was sitting with Keizer in the plant’s conference room, trying to help him hold on to it.
Keizer, 39, folded his arms in a tight knot across his chest and stared at the floor. He had been struggling with his drinking since returning from Afghanistan. His new bosses were unsure how to handle his growing anxiety at work. On his worst days, they worried that a fire alarm or unexpected tap on the shoulder from a co-worker might cause Keizer to lurch into machinery or accidentally injure someone.
Keizer’s mind began to race. He was sure that Bolton was there to tell him that he was losing his job. He imagined that his 18-year-old son would cut off contact with him.
Bolton pulled his Velcro-attached captain’s insignia off his uniform and set it on the table. “I am here as a friend, not an officer," he said. They talked alone for 30 minutes. Then Bolton, Keizer and the plant managers worked out a plan. Keizer promised to seek help for his drinking. One of his supervisors, an Air Force veteran, pledged to give him advance warning and stand by his side during fire drills. They would start by doing practice drills without the alarm.
“The company loves soldiers," Bolton would say later, explaining such accommodations. “They have plaques on the walls of their employees who have served and have fought overseas. I think it is a culture in that company. . . . They were willing to help Sal because he’s a soldier."
Bolton, too. He asked Keizer to stay in closer touch, answered the texts that would come in the middle of the night, took Keizer with him to church and did all he could, right up until Keizer lost his job after being charged one night with burglary, destruction of property and public intoxication. Keizer called Bolton from jail. According to Bolton, Keizer told him that he had been drinking and had fallen in a creek. To warm himself, he said he climbed into an unlocked car and was arrested.
“I am dumbfounded," Bolton said. “I don’t know what to do. His PTSD, depression and anxiety are out of control."
Bolton said he was going to talk to his lawyer and make sure he knew Keizer was a veteran. There is a special veterans court in Tulsa, but not in Rogers County, where Keizer was arrested.
Interviewing for himself
Last month, Bolton learned that he had another client: himself. Defense budgets were being cut in Washington. In Oklahoma, Guard officials were paring back their workforce.
Bolton grabbed his binder of résumés and headed for a meeting with Cintas, a business-supply company. Last fall, he interviewed for a management job with the company but withdrew from consideration when his commanders offered to extend his orders for six months. The company’s website showed that the position was still open.
“I’ve got four guys I want to tell you about," Bolton told the Cintas manager. He casually mentioned that he was looking for a job, too, and probed for some sign of interest.
“I’ll have my guys apply online — and then I’ll apply myself," he suggested.
In the parking lot, he wondered whether the company had lost interest in him. “I am starting to get stressed," he said. Bolton, whose 12-year marriage ended in January, has had his war, too.
He let two weeks pass before calling the Cintas manager.
“I am trying to figure out if I need to continue to keep looking," he said.
Cintas had hired someone else.
Two days later, he was at it again. Another interview. This time it was with an energy company, where an executive was asking him what he had learned at his current job. “Companies aren’t really willing to step up and help vets," Bolton said. “Mostly, what we get is just a pat on the back."