It would be hard to find a military record more impressive than that of Mauro Mujica-Parodi III. Commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps after graduating from Georgetown University, he was assigned to the 3rd Battalion of the 7th Marine Regiment. As an infantry officer, he was deployed twice to Ramadi, Iraq, where he directed and supervised 50 Marines, 100 Iraqi police, and more than 100 Iraqi soldiers in increasing security and improving infrastructure. In March of 2008, with the rank of captain, he left active duty – he remains on Inactive Reserve status – with the intent to become a student of business.
“I knew fairly early on that I wanted to go to business school,” he said. “I saw the military and civilian life as two different lives. I didn’t realize quite how much I would be able to leverage my military experience into a civilian career.”
The timing was off, however; when he was deactivated, it would be nearly a year before the next round of fall applications were considered at business schools. Mujica-Parodi decided to research schools, get his application materials together, and gain valuable work experience. Given his leadership role in Iraq, he didn’t expect much trouble in finding work – but he was surprised: In an already slow economy, as it turned out, he wasn’t in demand. “It was extremely difficult for me to get a job,” he said. “Extremely difficult. I had a lot of people saying, ‘Thank you for your service.’ But I was an infantry officer, and trying to explain that skill set to anyone else is a little difficult … At the end of the day – one, I probably didn’t communicate as well as I could have the benefits of having an infantry background or having a military background; and two, I didn’t feel like it was falling on receptive ears.”
The Unemployment Problem
Mujica-Parodi’s dilemma is far from unique among veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. The unemployment rate for returning veterans has consistently lagged behind that of civilians. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 11.5 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were unemployed, compared to the 9.5 percent overall national rate. Worse yet, 12.5 percent of new veterans, during the first six months of 2010, were unemployed. The worst-hit veterans have been Reserve and National Guardsmen, who often leave behind civilian jobs when they deploy: Their unemployment rate has more than quadrupled since 2007.
The problem is alarming, and Tim Embree, legislative associate for the nonprofit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), has spent much of the past few years keeping it in the sights of legislators. In April 2010, he testified before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs and offered IAVA’s suggestions for getting more veterans to work. Within days of his testimony, a new bill, the Veterans Employment Act of 2010, was introduced on Capitol Hill.
“A lot of folks,” Embree said, “don’t know what assets veterans bring to the table when they come to the civilian world. You have service members who are leaving the military with these phenomenal skill sets. Unfortunately, they don’t speak the business language, and … the business world does not speak military language.”
For example, said Embree, a former platoon leader – like Mujica-Parodi — might come to a job interview after coordinating the activities of dozens of people, and be told by an interviewer that he or she doesn’t have management experience. “That person would have been in charge of 60 to 90 people, and not just those people, but their families, and not just during the work week,” he said. “They would have been responsible for them seven days a week. They were responsible for making sure they had food, making sure they had a logistic chain, making sure that they had a schedule, making sure that they were meeting their goals on time. But unfortunately they don’t understand and can’t translate that into civilian-speak.”
Mujica-Parodi – who has since enrolled in one of the nation’s most prestigious business schools, the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University – said that it really does seem, at times, that the military and the business community speak completely different languages. “In the military, you have your jargon,” he said. “And in the business world you have your jargon. It’s pretty interesting, because when I’m with my school friends and there happens to be a bunch of military guys around, I might as well be speaking Latin. They have no idea what we’re talking about … You can’t possibly go into an interview with someone and have that translate.”
For Reserve and National Guardsmen, Embree said, the problem is compounded by the fact that employers often feel snakebit when an employee is called into service; in his congressional testimony, Embree recalled the first interview question posed to one Guardsman: “Are you going to be hired and than have to leave again?”
Riding Out the Recession
In Embree’s testimony, he also recounted the experience of one veteran who, after about 30 job interviews and various temporary positions, chose to return to school under the Post-9/11 Veterans Education Assistance Act, popularly known as the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
When it was passed in the summer of 2008, the Post-9/11 GI Bill was the cause of much optimism throughout the country; at last, it was widely believed there was a veterans’ education benefits bill to rival the original post-World War II bill. The original GI Bill, which paid benefits to more than half of the nation’s 15 million World War II veterans, is regarded by many historians as one of the most successful government programs in U.S. history, a law that helped usher in an era of optimism, sacrifice, and hard work.
“The first GI Bill,” Embree said, “was the shrewdest investment in our country in the past 100 years. I mean, this built the first Greatest Generation. It built the middle class. Think of how many small towns are doing well because of these small businesses that were started by World War II vets. Think of all the elected officials who have done so much, all the teachers, all the business owners.”
Of course, the number of World War II vets dwarfs those of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, but in its first year of paying benefits, the Post-9/11 GI Bill has made a significant impact, paying out $4.4 billion in benefits to 317,000 students between August 2009 and August 2010.
The provisions of the GI Bill are, by almost all accounts, unusually generous: Under the law, the Department of Veterans Affairs pays for up to 100 percent of a veteran’s tuition and required fees at a state college or university, depending on the veteran’s length of service. Subject to some restrictions, it may also include allowances for housing and books. In certain cases, the benefit may be transferred to the veteran’s spouse or other dependent. Tuition payments are made directly to the school, while money for housing and books is paid directly to the student.
Private or graduate schools whose tuition is higher than the in-state maximum may choose to participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program, designed to help veteran students who want to attend higher-priced private and public universities. Under the program, the school or institution decides the level of funding it will provide – up to half the amount of the total tuition cost, which will then be matched by the VA.
Because the Kellogg School of Management is a Yellow Ribbon participant, Mujica-Parodi’s tuition, fees, and expenses – about $70,000 annually – are almost completely covered between the school and the federal government. “It’s been amazing,” he said. “Within three weeks of showing up here at Kellogg, you’re already starting to talk to companies and build contacts. It’s very interesting because when I got out of the military, it really would be difficult to find people to speak to, and it was very difficult to sell myself to them. And three weeks of business school, and all of a sudden it’s a different story. Now we’re all hot commodities. What happened in three weeks? What’s different?”
To Bob Norton, the deputy director for governmental relations with the independent nonprofit Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), the Post-9/11 GI Bill presents an amazing opportunity for most – if not all – Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. “You can see by the sharp increase in numbers of veterans using the GI Bill that they’re taking advantage of it,” he said. “So there has been a sea change. There’s no doubt about it.”