Mt. Rainer Park in Washington was recently closed while the FBI investigated the fatal shooting of a park ranger and death of the gunman, probably from exposure. I could write about an almost two-year old law allowing people to bring loaded weapons into national parks or the untimely death of a young park worker, but I think it is salient to focus on what the media have already called to our attention: the alleged gunman is a veteran of the Iraqi war. After serving in Iraq for two years, reports from those who knew him say he was depressed, aggressive, and most likely suffered from PTSD once back in the U.S. Although I do not know if he was employed at the time of this tragedy, what occurred in Mt. Rainer should remind us of the economic plight of combat veterans.
My colleague, Alair MacLean, has published in ASR on the employment struggles faced by combat veterans. Drawing on longitudinal data, she found that recent (post-1975) combat service veterans faced higher unemployment rates than their non-combat peers ). Although her sample only included veterans from the WWII through post-Vietnam eras (so no veterans from the most recent Iraqi wars), it’s probably safe to say combat veterans face just as poor employment prospects, maybe even worse prospects since the economic downturn starting in 2008 has increased unemployment for all Americans. What can be done about the poor labor market prospects for returning veterans in the prime of their working years? MacLean suggests providing better health care to returning veterans will ease the transition from combat to civilian life and, likely, reduce cases of PTSD. Others have also suggested job training programs for veterans. In the U.K, where PTSD rates are significantly lower than rates among returning Iraqi veterans in the U.S., deployed troops are sent on a brief “Third Location Decompression” deployment to a tropical island where they relax with their unit, in part to treat and/or prevent PTSD.
As sociologists, we stand to make a significant contribution to policy by answering what can be done to enhance employment of combat veterans. And because military service is not evenly distributed across race/ethnic and class lines, with such answers we can make a significant contribution to the understanding of lingering labor market inequality.