What Now for America's Young, Jobless Soldiers?

The military used to be a vehicle of social mobility. Yet many young veterans are facing the same economic crunch as other Millennials.

Even as the nation paused on Monday to commemorate Veterans' Day, U.S. defense analysts continued to lay the framework for the sharpest force reduction in forty years. Hundreds of thousands of America's professional warriors will soon be out a job, catapulted into one of the grimmest economies in national memory. As a decade of wars winds to a close, we should ask what comes next. If the country no longer needs many of its service members, but neither do civilian employers, where will they end up? On the horizon looms a new and serious jobs crisis for our recent veterans—if not confronted now, it will surely get worse.

Cuts to military personnel, once a topic of fierce debate, have now become a matter of course. The only questions now are how much—and how fast. As the Pentagon pivots to the Asia-Pacific, it is America's ground forces who find themselves most on the chopping block. In June, the Army sheared its active combat brigades from forty-five to thirty-three. It is prepared to cut at least one hundred thousand more active-duty personnel. Meanwhile, the Marine Corps plansoptimisticallyto lose 20 percent of its active-duty force.

Thanks to the ongoing budgetary sequester and political morass of the U.S. Congress, however, much of this process remains clouded in uncertainty. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has signaled that the final cuts could go far deeper. Since the introduction of America's All-Volunteer Force in 1973, there has been only one other personnel reduction of such significant size. Coming at the end of the Cold War, this saw a phased elimination of 25 percent of the Armed Forces over five years. By comparison, today's downsizing is sharper, more lopsided, and more open-ended. Its pace pushes into uncharted territory—and sows deep uncertainty among those still in the service.

William Crunkleton, aged 23, was honorably discharged as a Corporal from the Marine Corps in February of this year. He recounts an environment in which, from 2011 onward, “Any infraction, no matter how small, became a one-way ticket out.” Force planners, long focused on encouraging service members to reenlist, have now shifted to raising the rate of attrition. Their efforts are paying off. Of Crunkleton’s close-knit peer group of five junior enlisted Marines, four have elected to hang up their uniforms for the civilian jobs market.

As these young men and women leave the active-duty military en masse, they enter a workforce still crippled by the Great Recession. Five years after the 2008 crash, unemployment remains at 7.8 percent. Record numbers of Americans have abandoned the job hunt altogetherthe national labor-participation rate has hit its lowest point in 35 years. For reference, when the U.S. military undertook its last major reduction in the early 1990s, the only downward pressure on civilian hiring was a recession that lasted eight months. It is a difference between night and day.

Compounding this challenge are the unique obstacles that recent veterans already face in re-acclimating to civilian life. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly three in ten post-9/11 veterans reported a service-related disability. Meanwhile, a 2011 Pew poll found that 44 percent of recently discharged service members reported trouble integrating into the civilian workforce, roughly double that of veterans who served before 9/11. Employers, running razor-thin margins and anxious about lingering PTSD, may also be especially hesitant to hire veterans only recently separated from active duty.