John Nolan
Dayton Daily News

Jack Choate, who drove a truck for the Ohio Army National Guard during the war in Iraq, said he lost his job at a Dayton machine shop because of problems that lingered from his military service.

The sounds of the machine shop’s presses closing on metal parts for fabrications “sounded like a tank, or artillery going off,” and upset him.

“I would have to remind myself that, ‘hey, this is work, I’m not back out in Iraq,’?” said Choate, 48, of Dayton.

As more veterans return from war and go back to work, more employers will be faced with employees with post traumatic stress disorder. The chronic mental health condition can afflict some people who have seen or experienced frightening events. Nearly 20 percent of U.S. service members who returned from Iraq or Afghanistan during a six-year period reported symptoms of PTSD or depression, the consultant RAND Corp. found in a study.

When the Society for Human Resource Management surveyed its members last year, 46 percent said they believed PTSD and other mental health ailments posed a challenge to hiring. But employers have come to realize that those problems can be overcome by providing workplace support, said Julie Malveaux, a spokeswoman for the organization of human resources executives.

The employer kept Choate on for almost two years, but ultimately let him go because treatment provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for PTSD was taking too much of his time, he said.

In April, the Society for Human Resource Management began distributing a veterans’ hiring “toolkit” for civilian employers. The group reported that about two-thirds of the companies it surveyed in 2011 had hired veterans within the prior three years and that 45 percent of the employers made specific efforts to recruit veterans.

Advocates encourage the use of employee assistance programs and workplace accommodations to avoid potentially jarring experiences for employees with PTSD.

Employees with PTSD could be supported with earplugs in a noisy environment, or a mirror at a computer workplace so that employees would not be unexpectedly approached from behind, a personnel consultant advised the human resources organization in 2009.

Unemployment among veterans remains a stubborn problem. It is particularly acute among young veterans of the National Guard or the military reserves, whose repeated deployments to supplement active-duty forces can make it difficult to hold civilian jobs, said Ted Daywalt, president and chief executive officer of VetJobs, a military jobs organization partly owned by Veterans of Foreign Wars.

“We get calls all day long from people desperate for work,” said Daywalt, himself a veteran of 28 years in the Navy and Naval Reserve.

The unemployment rate among all veterans in April stood at 7.1 percent, below the rate of 8.1 percent for the entire population that month, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported. But among veterans aged 18 to 24, the unemployment rate was 18.6 percent, exceeding the rate of 14.6 percent among all 18- to 24-year-olds.

Veterans are trying to adjust to a society that may have changed since they entered the service, said Mike Salois, who oversees Ohio programs for Volunteers of America, which runs veterans’ programs funded by the departments of Labor and Veterans Affairs. Some veterans first need help finding a home, overcoming alcohol or drug abuse, or dealing with mental health problems, he said.

“A lot of them, when they come back, they don’t want to deal with that,” Salois said. “They say, ‘If I get the job, everything will be OK.’ ”

Mark Hawk, 53, of West Milton, served in the Persian Gulf War during nearly 25 years with the Army on active duty and then the Army Reserve. After returning home, he worked at a series of jobs over 17 years, including driving trucks, before medical problems cut short his capability to work.

His military job refueling aircraft led to a civilian job as a refueler at Dayton International Airport. But, Hawk said he had to leave that job after some fellow employees realized that the sound of trucks backfiring would cause him to jump.

“They thought it was funny. I didn’t,” Hawk said. “I had a couple altercations out on the ramp with a couple of guys.”

The VA provided treatment for both Hawk and Choate and eventually concluded they were disabled and unable to work, they said. Both said that VA programs, as well as PTSD support programs they regularly attend, have been important to their continued well-being.

PTSD isn’t the only hurdle some veterans face as they try to readjust to civilian life. Thousands of veterans struggle to overcome problems that can include homelessness, substance abuse and lack of skills specifically targeted to the civilian market.

James Lemaster said he is willingly working 12-hour shifts at a Dayton machine shop, similar to his former work stints as a Navy employee on the flight deck of aircraft carriers.

It represents his introduction to the civilian work force, after a struggle with debilitating emotional trauma. Lemaster said he needed the government’s help to pull himself out of a rut of alcoholism and despair after his military service ended and his mother, a Huber Heights resident, died of cancer last year.

Lemaster, 26, spoke enthusiastically about his job as a metal grinder at the machine shop, where he hopes to learn the welder’s trade, and the federally funded assistance for veterans that he has received to overcome his drinking problem and land a job.

“It was a blessing, what they did for me,” Lemaster, a native of Springfield, said in an interview at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Dayton hospital. “This is definitely a career opportunity.”

Veterans served through the Labor Department-funded Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program, run by Volunteers of America, can spend anywhere from a few months to two years in the program. Volunteers of America makes it a point to offer follow-up support to veterans after they exit the programs to help them hang on to jobs, Salois said.

Veterans involved in the program, including Lemaster, said it has helped stabilize them. Von Thomas, 46, an Army veteran who was a cook for Black Hawk helicopter crews for the 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Ky., was homeless before coming to the program in June 2011. Now, he has housing, has taken a computer class, holds a job cleaning shopping mall parking lots, and plans to train for a commercial truck driver’s license through a Clark State Community College program.

Without the assistance, he conceded: “It would have been a lot tougher.”

One-stop employment centers in Ohio’s 88 counties offer another path for veterans to get help seeking jobs and the support needed, in some cases, to become employable. Their barriers to a job may range from lack of transportation or essential job skills to having been incarcerated for felony crimes, said Pamela Mason, chief of veterans services for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

The department develops a plan for addressing their problems and works with partner agencies, as needed, to line up housing, rehabilitation and training services, said Mason, an Air Force veteran who was born at Wright-Patterson Medical Center while her father served in the Air Force.

Veterans who are willing to relocate for a job are able to do so, Mason said. One man from the Youngstown area interviewed with Chesapeake Energy Corp. at a jobs fair supported by Ohio officials, and was hired for a position in Oklahoma, she said.

Military experience, and the leadership training and maturity it can provide, translates well for the civilian working world, said Daywalt, president of the VetJobs military jobs organization. But he forecasts that unemployment among National Guard members could substantially increase this year because of the likelihood of periodic deployments that would interrupt their availability to civilian employers, including small businesses.

Guard members will have a tougher road ahead because they will have to compete for civilian jobs with military personnel who will be ending their service as the Defense Department reduces personnel ranks to cut spending, Daywalt said.

He attributed the increase in unemployment rates among young members of the National Guard and the Reserves to a change in Defense Department policy, effective in January 2007, which allowed for multiple call-ups of Guard and Reserve to support the U.S. war effort. That resulted in a doubling of the jobless rate among those ranks, he said.

Otherwise, the unemployment rate for all veterans, as a group, has historically more closely tracked the national jobless rate, Daywalt said.

Employers know that if they hire a Guard member or reservist, that there could be disruptions in the company’s work force while the military member is deployed, said Jerry Newberry, a spokesman at the Veterans of Foreign Wars headquarters in Kansas City, Mo. There is a law stating that an employer is supposed to keep a comparable job open for a reservist or Guard member who is deployed, but there are ways to get around the law and the VFW receives complaints about that, Newberry said.

VetJobs has noted that many companies, including larger employers like Home Depot, Wal-Mart and American Airlines, make special efforts to hire veterans, particularly those who have been wounded during service.

The Defense Department advocates for civilian hiring of Guard and Reserve members through the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve program. It promotes awareness of applicable laws, recognizes exceptional support by employers, and tries to resolve conflicts between employers and service members, said Lt. Col. Robert Ditchey, a Defense Department spokesman.

In 2011, the department began the Hero2Hired program to promote hiring of Guard and Reserve members. That program features the H2H.jobs website, job-seeker profiles and job fairs.

The government’s Transition Assistance Program, mandated by Congress since 1991, provides departing military personnel with employment assistance as well as counseling and help getting access to military service benefits. During fiscal 2011 alone, more than 273,300 service members left active duty.