Don Lowman described his first transition from military to civilian life as a tough one, filled with “reckless behavior” where he estranged himself from family and friends and could barely find or hold down a job.
It took the 31-year-old veteran a year and half after a tour in Iraq to start seeking help for post-traumatic stress disorder and even longer to start tackling his unemployment. By 2009, Lowman was back on tour with the National Guard, this time in Afghanistan.
The 2010 transition went a lot smoother than the one in 2006, he said. Tired of entry-level jobs, Lowman enrolled in Winthrop University in Rock Hill to further his education.
Next year, Lowman will graduate with a degree in psychology and hopes to work in paramilitary forces or as a counselor for other combat veterans.
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“I knew I couldn’t sit around and estrange myself,” Lowman said of his second homecoming in 2010. Compared to 2006, Lowman said there are now more programs targeted specifically at helping veterans find jobs and get back on their feet.
“The assistance and tools are there if they need it,” he said.
While overall U.S. unemployment remains high, more veteran-specific resources and an increase in “military-friendly” businesses have improved opportunities for veterans statewide and locally, according to experts.
Recent statistics by the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce show that overall veteran unemployment sits at 6.9 percent, just below the national average of 7 percent.
But for post-9/11 veterans like Lowman, joblessness is 8 percent statewide and 9.4 percent nationally. Only veterans actively job searching are included in those figures.
For Joe Medlin, command sergeant major of the 178th Engineer Battalion and director of Veteran Affairs in Rock Hill, unemployment is something he has “aggressively tracked” among his own – including Lowman.
Medlin made it a point to periodically check in with his soldiers in the months after they returned home – matching them with employers who reached out to him for veteran job applicants.
He said the current unemployment rate for the battalion is around 3 percent, a far cry from years before when joblessness was significant. He continues to work with veterans to refine resumes, set up job interviews, and help focus their job search.
Lowman’s fellow serviceman, Justin Arant, said that job resources were made available to him when he arrived back in the states from Afghanistan in 2010.
“It might not be the job you want, but it’s a job to pay your bills,” said Arant, 24, who has worked with his family’s tree removal business.
He couldn’t afford to cover the cost of a wildlife biology degree at Clemson University. Education funding from the G.I. bill depends on how much active duty soldiers have accrued.
Arant is hoping to secure a job with Procter & Gamble, which he said has been “eager to hire vets.”
“There’s been a huge push in South Carolina in general for businesses to partner with organizations that cater to veterans,” said Adrienne Fairwell, director of information services at SCDEW.
Fairwell said veterans get “priority service,” gaining early entry to job fairs and individual job help. Companies like Wells Fargo and Bank of America are among those that have pledged to hire more veterans, she added.
Local businesses like Rock Hill’s Williams & Fudge have made a push to hire veterans with close to 20 veterans currently employed by the student debt collection agency, according to division manager Paul Lankes.
“The biggest ingredient is communication,” Lankes said of the primary asset the agency looks for in applicants. The jobs are full-time positions that don’t require college degrees, but do require on-the-job training.
“We gravitate [toward] those that like to work with us,” said Brad Ware, J1.1 employer adviser for Rock Hill. The J1.1 Service Member and Family Care Directorate is a National Guard program aimed at helping soldiers professionally and at home.
Ware is a National Guard veteran himself, hired to help other veterans.
He said that “a lot of young people don’t know how to look for jobs,” “dress for success,” or translate military skills to civilian careers. Underemployment is an issue with younger vets who have college degrees but aren’t working in fields of their choice, he added.
Other vets, such as Franklin Hunter, 27, have decided to target industries with job stability. Hunter returned to his manufacturing job in 2010, only to get laid off six months after.
He later pursued a commercial driver’s license and now works driving tractor-trailers.
“We have veterans coming out from every walk of life,” said Lynda Burke, SCDEW veterans coordinator. Burke said that of the 30 or so employers at a recent veterans job fair in Rock Hill, most were hiring for full-time and some part-time positions.
Medlin said employers hiring vets benefit from employees with a wealth of real-life experiences that few outside the military have.
“Most of these young people have been responsible for millions of dollars worth of government equipment, up to and including the lives of other soldiers,” he said. “It brings a level of responsibility and maturity.”
“You’re coming from one world to another, it wasn’t easy,” said Arrant. “But the hand’s there.”