During her visit to Southern California today, federal Labor Secretary Hilda Solis met with military veterans who come home from war and can't find a job. KPCC's Frank Stoltze reports that several who spoke at the town hall-style meeting told heart-wrenching stories.
Frank Stoltze: In a cavernous hall at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles, Solis sat on a stage below a giant American flag. A man in a brown camouflage uniform carefully made his way to a nearby table.
Jesse Acosta: Good morning, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. My name is Sergeant Major Jesse Acosta.
Stoltze: Acosta's strong voice weakened as he described how he was blinded while fighting in Iraq three years ago. A bomb sent shrapnel through his eyes.
Acosta: I was an energy tech at the gas company 23 years. What am I gonna do now?
Stoltze: The 52-year-old father of four from Santa Fe Springs said that when he returned home, the Veterans Administration did little to help him cope with his medical problems or find a job. Jordan Eash served three tours of duty with the Marine Corps in Iraq. He said the telecommunications company he'd worked for promised a job when he returned after his third tour. The 26-year-old Long Beach man said the company reneged on that promise.
Jordan Eash: Pretty much we're not asking here to be a millionaire. I just want to be able to serve and have the opportunity to live this American dream that I fought so hard to preserve. [applause]
Stoltze: Steven Peck is with the U.S. Veterans Initiative – a non-profit provider of services to homeless and at-risk military veterans. He says the unemployment rate among veterans is higher. So is the rate of homelessness. Veterans make up 20 percent of the homeless population in L.A. County. Peck says two-thirds are addicted to drug or alcohol, and nearly half live with a "serious psychiatric diagnosis."
Steven Peck: Studies have shown that two additional factors have contributed to their homelessness – lack of support in the year after they're discharged from their military serve and social isolation. So it is critical that we reach out to these young veterans as soon as we can.
Stoltze: Especially amid this deep recession, says Michael Dolphin. He's with the California Employment Development Department in Los Angeles County.
Michael Dolphin: The jobs that folks had are no longer there. But the skills that they developed exist. And the opportunity and the challenge is to increase those skills and help folks be better prepared for what comes next.
Stoltze: Labor Secretary Solis said she heard the needs loud and clear. She promised that she and President Obama would improve job training and placement for military veterans.
Hilda Solis: Don't think about what services were before January the 20th. OK? Let me remind you, this is a new day.
Stoltze: Solis reminded the audience of several hundred people that Mr. Obama had been in office for fewer than 100 days, and she counseled patience. Retired Army Sergeant Major Acosta suggested that he doesn't have much left.
Acosta: It's time to kick down doors and teach 'em a lesson. [applause]