Job-searching veterans battle job market, stress disorders

Orlando Rivera (right) and Sweetpea meet with a prospective employer. (Photo: Whitney Wild)

Basic training may have whipped military veterans into shape to serve the United States, but now that their service has ended, a new challenge awaits.

And basic training didn't train them for the job search.

On Wednesday, hundreds of veterans flooded the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in downtown Washington to turn their military histories into civilian careers.

Thousands of veterans came to the event, hoping to land one of 800 available jobs and to take advantage of new Veterans Affairs services and extra help from administration officials.

"They're hard working, they're greatly disciplined," Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said. "(They have) just the kind of skills the workforce is looking for."

Stress disorder makes job search tougher

The unemployment rate amongst veterans sits at about 7.7 percent, much lower than the national average. But for post Sept. 11 veterans, that number is much higher; the unemployment rate for that subset is closer to 15 percent. Many are also fighting a battle that's even scarier than the job market - post-traumatic stress disorder.

Orlando Rivera, who served in Iraq, is one of those grappling with PTSD. He suffers seizures, and to help him cope with his nerves, he brings along Sweetpea, a specially-trained dog.

"A lot of people don't understand PTSD," Rivera says. "You can be happy-go-lucky one day, a week or two weeks, and then you just crash."

At the job fair, Sweetpea helped Rivera break the ice.

"Everybody remembers the guy with the dog," he said. "They actually stopped talking to other people and focused on her."

Just 40 days away from retirement from the service, Rivera is rushing to find a job in security to support his wife and two children.

"I'm just going to cross my fingers," Rivera said.

A simple mission

Addressing PTSD has become a central issue in the fight against veteran unemployment. For thousands like Rivera, officials hope that the battle will slowly end when a new job begins.

"The mission is a simple one: we want every veteran to walk away...knowing that they've been helped," Mary Santiago, from the Department of Veterans Affairs, says.