SALEM - An Oregon National Guard jobs program geared toward veterans is showing signs of progress against a lingering and troubling unemployment challenge for America's former warriors.
The agenda, dubbed the Joint Transition Assistance Program, was initially designed to help veterans of the global war on terror but has expanded to furnish assistance to veterans of other conflicts.
In the past year the program found jobs for 328 veterans. That effort translated into $8.9 million in savings for Oregon, according to Guard officials. Former JTAP manager and Oregon Guardsman Master Sgt. Vinnie Jacques also said the agenda helped many vets' secure educational benefits.
"We've also put a lot of people into college," Jacques said.
Jacques, a veteran of Operation Iraq Freedom, managed the JTAP program for more than a year. He said the Joint Transition Program is one of those "best-kept" secrets that made positive, and measurable, progress regarding veteran's employment.
"No one else in the country has documented their reintegration process like we have," Jacques said.
Reintegration is the military term used to describe the process soldiers wade through after finishing their time overseas or on active duty and returning to civilian life. Oregon does not contain any active duty military bases but its Guard force spent the past 10 years weathering multiple deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq.
For example, Eastern Oregon's biggest Guard unit, the 3rd Battalion, 116th Cavalry Regiment, deployed to Iraq twice in six years - in 2004 and 2010. Other Oregon Guard units faced a similar deployment schedule since 2003.
Many of those Guardsmen returned home to a bleak economic picture and, in rural areas of the state like Eastern Oregon, faced the specter of long-term unemployment.
Top Oregon Guard leaders recognized that many of their citizen-soldiers, after spending 12 or more months overseas in a combat zone, faced a host of challenges - including unemployment - when they returned home.
The JTAP program, Jacques said, was crafted to be a full-spectrum resource for returning soldiers, helping with issues ranging from mental health issues to educational benefits. The program assigned managers to every part of Oregon.
As the global war on terror winds down, JTAP is shifting its focus to unemployed veterans.
The troubling unemployment picture for post 9/11 veterans, or Gulf War II era vets - those who served after the deadly Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks - continues to linger in America and Oregon. According to data from the U.S. Department of Labor, the unemployment rate for Gulf War era II veterans soared from 9.1 in January 2012 to 11.7 percent in January 2013.
In contrast, the unemployment rate for World War II, Korean War and Vietnam-era veterans was 7.2 percent in 2012.
Guard and Reserve soldiers are often hit the hardest in the job market.
Ted Daywalt, the CEO and president of VetJobs, a leading military employment website, said those soldiers are at a disadvantage.
"Guys who separate totally (from active service) are getting jobs. Wounded warriors who can and want to, are for the most part getting jobs," he said.
Daywalt called the use of the Guard and Reserve in the war on terror a "back-door draft," and he said the unemployment challenge for post 9/11 veterans, including Guardsmen and Reservists, isn't going to go away anytime soon.
"It's been this big gorilla sitting in the corner. The use of the Guard and the Reserves is only going to go up. We have a unique situation where no longer is the active Army the biggest fighting force. Now it is the Guard," he said.
Jacques said the very elements central to a successful military career on deployment translate into highly qualified job candidates for any firm. He said JTAP honed in on the distinctive work ethics of veterans to not only help them find jobs but also educate employers. Jacques said the success rate of the JTAP program speaks for itself.
"Without a doubt this is the most successful program in the nation," he said.
Jacques said the challenges faced by post 9/11 warriors - and all veterans - regarding employment and other issues will not disappear. Even as America winds down its war on terror, the aftereffects of more than 10 years of conflict will be felt into the future.
"The war is not wrapping up for these guys, for these veterans. It is not ever going to be over," he said.
Staff Sgt. Pat Caldwell is the combat correspondent for the 3rd Battalion, 116th Cavalry Regiment. He recently spent a year in Iraq with the 3rd Battalion and now works for the Oregon Army National Guard's Reintegration Program.