WASHINGTON, April 16, 2011 -- In the military, Eric Smith led a four-man ICU team, performing procedures that only the most experienced civilian nurses were trained to perform, but more than three years after leaving the Marines he hasn't even been able to get a job "changing bed pans."
Smith, 26, is in the same situation as many veterans, whose military training and experience gave them skills that should be in high demand in the civilian job market, but have struggled to find work because they do not have certification in their field.
The former Navy corpsman and member of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America testified Wednesday at a Congressional hearing led by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., on reducing unemployment among veterans.
He described how he found himself standing in front of his local 7-11 for work when he came home from his second tour in Iraq in August 2008.
"I'd walk there in the early mornings, maybe around five or so, and I'd walk from my house to that 7-11 and wait out there for work -- that's how bad it got," Smith said in an interview with ABC News earlier this week.
Young male veterans returning from the fight overseas are encountering another one at home -- with unemployment. According to recently released Department of Labor statistics, in 2010 the jobless rate among all veterans who have served since 2001 is 11.5 percent -- 2 percent higher than for non-veterans, at 9.4 percent. Young male veterans between the ages of 18 to 24 had an unemployment rate of 21.9 percent in 2010.
"That is over one in five of our nation's heroes who cannot find a job to support their family, do not have an income that provides stability, and do not have work that provides them with the self-esteem and pride that is so critical to their transition home," said Murray said at the hearing on Wednesday.
Military Skills Hard to Translate to Civilian World Without Certification
A major problem for veterans is not having certification showing that skills learned in the military is directly applicable to the civilian workforce.
For the first two years of his enlistment, Smith worked at the Balboa Hospital's intensive care unit in San Diego, leading a four-man team for an ICU with more than 20 beds.
As a Navy corpsman in Iraq, Smith treated Iraqi civilians, Iraqi soldiers and Marines on the battlefield.
"The classic war wounds," he said. "A lot of blast injuries, shrapnel injuries, things of that sort. It was IED [hell] basically."
Upon returning home from his second deployment in 2008, Smith first applied to work as a certified nursing assistant at a local hospital in Maryland. He said the interview went well, but he never received a call, and is convinced the reason is because he did not have a certificate saying he could do the things he said he had done in the military.
"I never got a call back afterwards, even though I thought I was going to, the reason being, I think, and I'm pretty sure, I'm 99 percent positive, is the fact that I did not have those civilian certifications that said I was able to do that," Smith said. "So basically everything on that resume was hearsay."
Smith joined the Navy at 17, wanting to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, father and older brother. He graduated from the Naval Hospital Corps school. Yet without certifications accepted by the civilian workforce, he essentially has to rely on his General Educational Development (GED) certificate, the equivalent of a high school diploma.
Smith said he's also frustrated by the lack of a uniform process for acquiring these civilian certifications while in the military.
According to Smith, the Navy offers some opportunities to gain these certifications, but the systems are not standardized. For example, certification is easily attainable for a corpsman who is assigned to a small command in an outpatient clinic with rigid 9-to-5 hours. He or she can then leave work to attend certification courses. However, a corpsman who works 12-hour night shifts at a hospital ward or who is preoccupied with back-to-back combat deployments cannot.
Returning to School for Certification: Wasting U.S. Tax Payer Dollars?
Smith acknowledged that he could return to school to obtain a degree as a physician's assistant, and take advantage of G.I. Bill benefits, which would cover the cost of education as well as housing while attending school. However, he said, it does not make sense for him to go to school for what he already knows, just to get the certificate.
"That would be counterproductive in a sense. I'm using my G.I. bill money, which is finite, for something I already know how to do. It is a waste, it is redundant, there really is no point in that," Smith told ABC News.
Furthermore, Smith said, attending school to become certified would be a waste of tax dollars -- first, the money already invested in his training, and second, for redundant education under the G.I. bill.
"The thing is, why should I have to, in a sense, 'double-dip,' you know, pay again to get this training all over again? Training that I've already had, training the Navy has invested money in already," Smith said.
"Today, several years later, I am still struggling to find a job and utilize the skills that the Navy spent over $1 million and six years to give me," Smith told members of Congress on Wednesday.
Before leaving the service, all service members attend the Transition Assistance Program (TAP), run by the Department of Labor to help veterans successfully transition into the civilian workforce. Smith said that although the information was valuable, he took it so far in advance of his exit, he didn't retain a lot of it.
During the hearing Wednesday, Murray pointed out that the TAP program is only mandatory for the Marine Corps, and recommended reform.
"As it stands right now, it is not as good as it can be. This program needs to be customized, it needs to be updated, and it needs to be delivered in a way that is relevant and most importantly, accepted by service members," Murray said.
During the hearing Wednesday, Department of Labor Assistant Secretary for Veterans' Employment and Training Raymond Jefferson identified six areas of the TAP program for improvement, such as creating different levels of job counseling for different levels of readiness, and updating the TAP Employment Workshop content. Jefferson said the content had not been significantly updated in 19 years.
Deputy Under Secretary of Defense John Campbell echoed the need for reform.
"The current program has been in place for nearly two decades without major enhancements," he said. "To strengthen and improve TAP, DOD, DOL and VA are collaborating to re-engineer, redesign, and transform the current program in a way that will better meet the needs of Service members and their families in the 21st century."
But for Smith, the reforms may not come soon enough.
Smith said he started receiving VA benefits about eight months ago, which he supplements with odd jobs around the neighborhood. He is currently living at home in Baltimore, and looking for steady work. Since returning from service, he has worked as a bartender, at a drywall plant and even as a drug-test patient.
"It is kind of disheartening in a way that on one hand, I'm 19 years old in the ICU changing the dressings on fresh surgery wounds, and I get out there in the civilian world, and I'm not even able to change a bed pan," he said. "It's kind of depressing."
This story has been updated on April 18, 2011 with the following:
In an email statement to ABC News, DOD Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Wounded Warrior Care and Transition Policy John Campbell said he and Assistant Secretary of Labor Jefferson are transforming TAP to "reflect the modern realities of the job market."
"We are strengthening it by focusing on areas such as information technology, licensure and certifications," Campbell said. "We are also aggressively leveraging technology and new media to shape the transformation of TAP into a blended career transition training model that takes advantage of online and digital resources, virtual classrooms, social media and other proprietary platforms to create a single Virtual Transition Assistance Program (VTAP) that compliments the traditional "brick and mortar" TAP classes that most service members now attend."
Campbell said since free online transition seminars launched March 1st, more than 800 individuals have registered to attend an one.
"We encourage all transitioning service members and their families to visit us at www.turbotap.org to follow the evolving virtual TAP experience."