WASHINGTON — For the first time, U.S. troops would be required to enroll in a federal job training program before they're allowed to leave the military under a bill introduced in the Senate on Wednesday.
Called the Hiring Heroes Act of 2011, it's aimed at reducing an unemployment rate of 27 percent for veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We are taking a huge step forward in rethinking the way we treat our men and women in uniform after they leave the military," said Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, the chief sponsor of the bill.
Too many returning troops are suffering from "the invisible wounds of war" and need more help finding jobs, said Murray, the chairwoman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
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"We read about it in the skyrocketing suicide statistics, problems at home, substance abuse and even in the rising homelessness among our returning veterans," she said at a news conference on the U.S. Capitol lawn.
There's no cost estimate for the bill, but Murray noted that in 2010, the Department of Defense paid out $500 million in unemployment benefits for Army veterans.
Under the bill, departing service members would learn about such things as job searches, career decision-making, occupational and labor market conditions, interviewing techniques and how to write cover letters and resumes. It would be offered as part of the Transition Assistance Program, which was created by a partnership among the Departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs, Transportation and Labor.
Currently veterans can voluntarily participate in the program. But officials said roughly a third of those leaving the Army choose not to.
Murray, 60, said that for too long Americans have patted veterans on the back, thanked them for their service then "pushed them out into the job market alone."
She said she wants to make sure that returning troops end up with good careers, not homeless or addicted or as "a generation lost." And she said her bill would allow Americans not to make the same mistakes of her generation, when too many Vietnam veterans were ignored when they returned home.
Murray and other proponents of the legislation said that too often veterans find out that certificates they've earned for different lines of military work are not accepted when they apply for civilian jobs.
She said that one of the first things veterans learn is employers are reluctant to hire them because they fear they may have mental health issues.
Veterans groups welcomed the bill and said they would fight for its passage.
"We consistently hear from our members that the challenges in this job market are mounting," said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "They need jobs and skills training to transition into the civilian workforce and we're encouraged to see that Congress is taking aggressive action on this front. There is a long road ahead."
It's way too soon to determine whether the bill has any chance of becoming law. Murray said her committee will not hold a hearing until early June, and a companion bill has yet to be introduced in the House.
Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, one of 13 co-sponsors of the bill, said that passing the legislation is "the responsible thing to do" to ease the transition from military to civilian life.
Alaska Democratic Sen. Mark Begich, another co-sponsor, told reporters that when he served as mayor of Anchorage he discovered that veterans and active-duty military personnel formed "one of our best recruiting grounds."
"When I was mayor, if we saw someone that had these incredible skill levels that was in the military or retired, we grabbed them because they had incredible depth of knowledge in a variety of areas," Begich said.
Delaware Democratic Sen. Chris Coons said proponents of the bill "recognize a gaping hole in our current structure and our system." Returning troops "can and should be the backbone of our revitalization of the economy of this country," he said.
"We have failed to provide for them a path to returning fully home," he said.
The other co-sponsors are Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.; Robert Casey, D-Pa.; Max Baucus, D-Mont.; Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.; Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii; Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent; Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; and Scott Brown, R-Mass.
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