Returning Veterans Get Helping Hand Finding Jobs

Returning Veterans
ST. PETERSBURG -

A few dozen veterans mingled around the Pinellas Technology Education Center recently, many clutching handfuls of job applications. At least 50 companies were on hand during the job fair, which was reserved for veterans in its first hour.

SOUND: Background sound of job fair.

Steven Delre of Valrico was in Iraq with the Air Force four different times over nine months. He's been back home for two months, and this was his third job fair.

Delre still hasn't landed a job he thinks is right for him. And he's gotten some unusual reactions when employers find out he served in Iraq.

DELRE: I've gotten a couple of nibbles, but I've also gotten civilian companies tell me they're scared because of my military background - I'd have poor customer service skills, things like that. They have a pre-notion that I'm going to yell at them and tell them to stand at attention and things like that. I thought it was pretty funny, myself.

Delre has a background in logistics, which he thinks would be perfect experience for a position in management.

DELRE: I knew the competition would be steep, especially in the Tampa area, so, no, it's not going as smooth as I'd like, but I was expecting a little rough time.

Nearby, Walter Etheridge perused the displays from several Bay area employers. The St. Petersburg resident has been out of the service since April, after serving in Iraq for a year.

ETHERIDGE: It's a little more difficult because you think with the veteran's preference and all the things that are going on with your job experience, they're looking for a little bit more for the kinds of job you want. As in high-paying job, not just minimum wage, $7, $10 an hour. You probably want to make $35,000 to $40,000 a year to recuperate the cost of living and all the things you didn't have to pay for when you were in the military.

REPORTER: Are you finding anything here that might fit what you're looking for? ETHERIDGE: Right now, they're just throwing job ideas at me, telling me 'we'll get back in contact with you.'

Etheridge wants to use his experience in the service as a logistics supply specialist to get a job in management.

In the meantime, he's scraping by to care for his wife and one child.

ETHERIDGE: The whole point is when you jump out of the military, there's nothing you can do until you get that job. So April, June, kind of time-frame, so I'm just making ends meet right now.

The situation is even more dire for veterans who have been wounded or disabled. There are a lot of resources available from the state or federal government. Veterans get government job preferences. And last week, Gov. Bush signed into law a series of bills to provide additional benefits to Florida's veterans.

But many times, these wounded vets are focused on getting medical care.

The last thing J.R. Martinez remembers of his tour of duty was rumbling through the Iraqi city of Karbala three years ago. His Humvee was struck by an improvised explosive device. Martinez was trapped and suffered burns over 40 percent of his face and body before he was pulled from the wreckage. Since then, he's been operated on 32 times.

MARTINEZ: At the time, I was 19 years old, and I understood when I was 19 and I was in the ICU and I stood and after I saw my face for the first time, it was tough for me because I thought how was I going to live like this? How was I going to be able to go on as a 19 year old? I'm still young. I have my life ahead of me. And knowing that we live in such a visual world, I though it was going to be impossible for me to move on.

It was then he found the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes. It's a non-profit group created to help severely wounded and disabled veterans and their families rebuild their lives. The Dallas, Texas resident is now its spokesman.

MARTINEZ: We don't care what you look like. All we care is how you are as a person. And that's what allowed me to get to where I am today. I feel that I'm blessed. And what happened to me not only was a tragedy, it was a blessing. And that's the only way to look at it.

Back at the Pinellas job fair, Steven Delre says despite his lack of success in landing a job, he's getting by with a little help from family members. And his wife has accepted a job.

DELRE: We're doing OK. I'm going to stay home and take care of the kids.

His advice for fellow veterans?

DELRE: I guess be persistent, and take your time.

The New York Times is sponsoring four 'Salute Our Heroes' jobs fairs for veterans around the country. One will be held July 11th at the USF Sun Dome in Tampa. More than 40 companies have already agreed to attend.

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