When the 48th Brigade’s Sgt. Jenna Ellyson was in Afghanistan, she remarked in January how different the deployment was from her first, a 2005 rotation in Iraq.
“My last deployment, I was single, didn’t have any kids,” she said.
Three months later, on April 5, Ellyson returned from Afghanistan with the last wave of troops from the 48th Brigade of the Georgia National Guard. A week later, she returned to her home in Warner Robins.
With a 2-year-old son, Austin, and her husband working for a Warner Robins military recruiting office, Ellyson came home with a mission: “Find a job anywhere I could. Find some way to contribute to this house.”
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With national unemployment at 9.9 percent, it was not an easy task. She looked for jobs at Robins Air Force Base.
“I didn’t see much,” Ellyson recalled.
Then she and her husband, Daniel, talked about another option.
Jenna Ellyson decided to go back to school. She plans to attend Macon State College this fall to work on a nursing degree. She already has 59 credit hours from previous work and expects to finish in two or three years.
“The education benefits in the Guard are just too good right now,” she said.
Under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, Ellyson stands to receive a $1,047 monthly stipend to attend Macon State College. Tuition will be covered by the federal government.
“Even better than getting a job,” Ellyson said. “It’s setting up a future.”
When she returns to school, Ellyson will be one of many beneficiaries of two decades of government efforts to support its troops. For veterans of the current wars, the wealth of opportunity — provided, in part, by generous government programs — is a world apart from previous generations of returning veterans.
The 48th Brigade soldiers were handed a one-two punch of misfortune. The unit was deployed to Afghanistan just as the insurgency accelerated, only to return home to near double-digit unemployment.
Fortunately for the 48th veterans, there is help. For reserve component service members who are returning from a deployment, the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act of 1994 mandates employers re-employ them at the same position or pay level they held when they left. That was quite a convenient guarantee, given that while the 48th Brigade was deployed to Afghanistan the U.S. economy lost more than 3 million jobs.
For unemployed 48th Brigade veterans looking to work for the federal government, all veterans are given preference for government jobs by federal mandate.
“That in itself is going to give them a leg up,” said Karl Abernathy, the chief of employment for Robins, who has two veterans working in his own office.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill that Ellyson will take advantage of was signed into law in 2008, a product of intense efforts by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va. It increases the amount of financial support given to veteran students under the Montgomery GI Bill.
Not yet enacted is a proposal from Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., called the “Soft Landing Act,” that would allow reserve component troops to receive their base pay up to 90 days after they return home from deployment.
Staying on the payroll
There are, of course, limits to these policies.
Ellyson was a supply sergeant in Afghanistan. She dealt with mountains of administrative work, maintaining “accountability of millions of dollars worth of equipment,” she said.
That seems like quite a résumé bullet. Why not go back to work for the military doing the same thing stateside?
As of December 2009, about 83,000 National Guardsmen and reservists are employed full-time by the military, either in uniform or as a civilian. That’s about 10 percent of the National Guard and reserve force.
However, returning veterans cannot expect automatic employment from the military. Even the military isn’t immune to the realities of the current economy. During the 48th Brigade’s deployment, the Georgia Guard cut 200 stateside technicians from its payroll.
“The military has taken a hit as well,” said retired Lt. Col. Ken Baldowski, a spokesman for the Georgia National Guard. “We have had to lay off or let go a significant number of people.”
Despite the federal-established hiring preference, veterans cannot assume they will be hired by the military.
“We hire non-veterans every day,” Abernathy said.
To contact writer Thomas L. Day, call 744-4489.