By Maureena Thompson, staff editor
With the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan scheduled to begin in July of this year, an important policy consideration will be how to create and promote jobs for our country’s ever-increasing numbers of newly minted veterans. If past wars have taught us anything, it is that our obligation to support members of the armed forces does not end with the war. Veterans face a number of issues upon their return home, and finding a new, sustainable career is one of the most prominent ones. Addressing the problem of how to help these young men and women transition into civilian careers is a vital step in transitioning out of war – but how can we ensure this is done given the poor current state of our economy?
A February 5 article in The New York Times, titled “Helping Soldiers Trade Their Swords for Plows,” highlighted one post-military career option that has been growing significantly in popularity among young veterans: farming. At an organic farm in Southern California, for example, a former Marine teaches transitioning armed service members how to utilize the skills they learned in the military – resourcefulness, strategic planning, endurance in the face of hardship – in planting and harvesting crops. A similar program, “Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots,” is offered through the University of Nebraska.
The article describes the appeal of farming as a natural one; roughly 45% of military members grew up in rural areas, and many are already familiar with agricultural systems from reconstruction work performed overseas. It also implies that the benefits of such programs are mutual; many of today’s seasoned farmers are quickly approaching retirement age, and there is a general lack of young people interested in entering the profession. Farmers worry that, while organic farming may be trendy at the moment, few of the college-educated “idealists” who currently are involved in small farming will be in it for the long haul. Veterans, they believe, would have more discipline and dedication, and hopefully more staying power.
But is training our veterans in the often backbreaking work of farming really in their own best interest? After years of physically demanding deployments, it seems quite a few veterans might prefer to learn a trade that is not so reliant upon the wearisome ritual of intensive daily labor. Both military members and farmers have tough and important jobs – but just because military members were willing to sacrifice to fight for their country, we should not assume they will be willing to continue to sacrifice.
Despite growing local food movements, small family farms still face stiff competition against large food industry farmers. As noble and pleasant as making a living by working one’s own land may sound, being successful enough to support a family through such a venture, especially just starting out, is very difficult. Anyone who watched Food Inc. saw just how much individual family farms struggle to stay afloat.
Veterans need to be afforded more programs aimed at teaching technical job skills for employment in growing fields such as medicine and internet technology support. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran jobless rates were at 15% in January, the highest percentage in five years. Indeed, the economic climate has resulted in unemployment for a number of Americans, but often the transition for armed service members from military to civilian employment can be even more difficult; without strong civilian career training, many are likely to struggle upon their return home this year.
Whatever the avenue, we should continue to make new efforts for creative job placement options and training programs for a multitude of soon-to-be-returning veterans. We need to commit to providing new ideas and increased resources toward ensuring those who fought bravely for our country aren’t coming home to overwhelming unemployment and uncertain livelihoods. And we need to recognize the deservedness of veterans to be placed in sustainable careers, not just labor-intensive ones that rely heavily on physical strength.