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A battle on jobs front

STEVE RANSON
Lahontan Valley News
Steve Ranson / Lahontan Valley News
ALL |

KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, Afghanistan – Sgt. Stephen Belcher is the face of the Nevada Army National Guard in Afghanistan.

So is Staff Sgt. Craig Shean of Incline Village.

And so are soldiers like Kristina Litle and James Eddings – both Las Vegas staff sergeants – and many more who are serving overseas, such as Gardnerville’s Michael Raviart, a staff sergeant with Headquarters and Headquarters Company (HHC).

While their camaraderie at Kandahar Air Field bonds them together as soldiers, a common denominator will affect them when they return to Nevada in January from their yearlong deployment.

What binds these soldiers and scores like them is that they will be unemployed when their boots hit the ground in the Silver State.

Since the 422nd Expeditionary Signal Battalion left Reno in January for two months of training and then deployed to Afghanistan, Uncle Sam has gainfully employed these soldiers.

What happens next?

The future, though, scares all of them.

“I don’t have a job to go back to,” said the 29-year-old Belcher, who lives in Logandale, a 45-minute drive from Las Vegas. “My wife doesn’t work, and we have three children ages 6, 3 and 1.”

While Belcher and his fellow guardsmen are counting down the days to returning home, the notion of soldiers not having jobs weighs heavily on him.

“Many of our soldiers will be unemployed when they return home,” he explained. “Though we have many skills and abilities to provide the employment market, it will still be difficult to find employment.”

But the strong desire to be home with family keeps Belcher focused. Articulate with his choice of words and expressions, he said the thought of being home with his wife and children makes him anxious to compensate for lost time.

The latest, unofficial estimates taken of the two Nevada companies and HHC assigned to the signal battalion indicate that 40-50 percent of the soldiers in each unit – or about 140 soldiers total – do not have a civilian job waiting for them.

Because of the unemployment guardsmen are facing when they return home, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., Gov. Brian Sandoval and Caleb Cage from the Nevada Office of Veterans Services have pledged their assistance.

Capt. Gordon Steinmann, commander of Charley Company at the Washoe Armory north of Reno, said the poor economy is causing soldiers to seek extensions in Afghanistan.

Because of that, he is encouraging soldiers to look for jobs now and obtain more information before leaving for Nevada.

Steinmann said he was encouraged when Sandoval visited the battalion in August and said he would work on a veterans outreach for jobs.

1st Sgt. Rodney Medina of Bravo Company, the lone Las Vegas unit in the 422nd, said battalion personnel including him are working hard to set up its soldiers for success and help them find jobs.

“We’re giving them classes for resume writing,” Medina said. “I’ve been looking at the websites to see what jobs they can apply for. We are going to give them all the tools. As a leader, I like to give them the tools, and then they go to run with them. It’s tough love. Not only do we train them to get by in the Guard but also get them out in the real world.”

Medina, a postal carrier, said he would hate to see the soldiers waste their knowledge if they can’t use it.

“It would break my heart if they don’t take what they learn out here and take it to the civilian world,” lamented Medina. “Some, though, have been proactive. One of the soldiers is interested in nursing.”

Although nursing may not be in the same job cluster as a cable installer, Medina said at least the person is looking toward future job opportunities and what field may be hiring.

The lack of jobs

Likewise, Shean, a tactical communication NCOIC (noncommissioned officer in charge), has spent eight years in the National Guard. He had previously been employed as a project manager in construction jobs, but those opportunities have disappeared during the poor economic times.

While in Afghanistan, Shean has been busy perfecting his communications work. He said it has been a challenge trying to get the local Afghanistan people to understand technology.

“They can do it, but it will take time,” Shean said.

He added the high point of his deployment has been working with coalition partners in order to make communications work along the units and out to forward operating bases (FOBs).

“It’s one team, one fight,” he said.

Yet, he has anxieties about returning home to Nevada in January.

In fact, he would like to extend his deployment with another unit, the only sure way for him to receive a paycheck.

“I am going home with no job and going to Nevada with 13 percent unemployment.” he said, his voice growing a little more agitated. “Something is to be said of staying in a war zone to have a job.”

Shean grew a little more intense with his subsequent responses. On top of having no job waiting for him, he will not have the same home to go to. The Incline Village guardsman said he and his wife are in the process of obtaining a divorce.

“I am going home,” Shean said. “There’s not a lot of joy for me when I climb off the plane,” he said. “When the commander says ‘Dismiss’ – dismiss to what?”

Litle is finishing her third tour but her second to Afghanistan. The Las Vegas resident also deployed to Iraq, and she was also able to extend some tours.

“Each tour is different,” said Litle, who is serving in the training section (G-3). “I have seen how progress has changed everything.”

Litle has been in the military since her first deployment almost seven years ago, but she – along with many others – may not be able to extend because the U.S. Army is cutting back on tours.

“I don’t have a job in Vegas,” she said. “I’m looking at Reno and Carson City, but most jobs are on the East Coast.”

Litle said an alternative would be to attend college because most employers insist on the applicant having a degree.

“That’s a roadblock,” she pointed out. “I am certified in IT (internet technology) jobs, and qualified with all my certifications. OJT (on the job training) is the best experience, but many employers want a degree.”

Litle said she has been applying for jobs since October but with no luck.

Likewise, Eddings has served on multiple deployments, three with signal units and the other with the 1864th Transportation Company out of Henderson.

While in Afghanistan, he has served as the unit movement officer at a Forward Operating Base. He will be unemployed unless he can remain at Kandahar.

“I have no job to go to,” echoed Eddings. “The last job I had was before the third deployment. I was laid off (as a driver) because of the economy. I have no wife and no kids but I help support my sister and mom. But I have enough to take care of them.”

Raviart, an operations NCOIC with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, has been busy while in Afghanistan. Once he departs Afghanistan and returns home, the Douglas County guardsman said he wants to pursue full-time opportunities with the Nevada National Guard either in Carson City or Reno.

Prior to deployment, Raviart performed ADOS or Active Duty for Operation Support, which resulted in him having short tours for almost two years. Now, Raviart isn’t so sure any ADOS tours await him.

“The economy is terrible,” he said, shaking his head.

Spc. Damien Celaya has mixed feelings about returning home. His salary has helped support his family in Las Vegas, but he wonders what the future will bring.

“I like being here; it’s a different opportunity here that has given me a ‘heads up’ on my future,” said the 27-year-old Celaya, who also served on a deployment in 2009-2010 with the 221st Cavalry Regiment, also from Las Vegas. “It would be nice to extend, but family comes first. I need to find something to provide for my family.”

He has a wife and two daughters, one a 3 1/2-month-old girl who was born while Celaya was at Kandahar.

While his second tour to Afghanistan hasn’t been as intense as the first, he said the country is still dangerous. Instead of conducting patrols, Celaya, instead, has worked at Camp Mercury, the temporary home of the 422nd. Being on base, though, has helped Celaya advance himself by earning additional certifications in the communications field.

“My key goal is to find something in the job market,” he said, adding after the last deployment he also struggled to find a job.

Looking ahead

Sgt. Mark Bell of Henderson had joined Celaya on the 221st deployment. He worked in military intelligence and provided information to the command.

The married father of five children said that in a perfect world, he would love to be home. Bell, though, was in construction until jobs began disappearing in southern Nevada.

“I did construction work and worked all over the U.S.,” he said. “I’ll find something.”

One of the oldest guardsmen in the company, Bell joined the Nevada Army National Guard four years ago at age 36. He said his wife has been supportive, and during the deployment, Bell said, his oldest son has done an “excellent job” in helping at home.

It is Staff Sgt. Adam Fenner’s desire to use military benefits for education and eventually obtain a college degree.

“I want to get an education,” said the 27-year-old soldier who is completing his fourth deployment and also served in the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. “I’m looking at the economy, and any job requires a bachelor’s degree.”

Fenner has completed three semesters in between deployments, but he doesn’t worry about the future. Fenner said he has time to think about the future, but if he could extend his deployment in Afghanistan until the economy improves, he would do so.

Although his tour is nearing an end, Fenner remains upbeat and said he learned much while assigned to the 422nd.

“I like the unit as a whole,” he said. “I learned a lot with the guys here. I made a few new friends … money is a plus. The 422nd has taken care of us. There’s no glamour or glitz but a mission.”

Spc. Katelynn Till of Las Vegas is a cable installer for one of the Nevada companies, and since March she has improved and added skills to her resume.

“I run copper into the buildings and prepare it for installation,” she said.

Till said her job was challenging at first, but once accustomed to it, she said, “it was a piece of cake.” She also worked with the Canadians and said it was interesting to see how soldiers from a different country run their operation.

“I am pretty satisfied, and I learned a lot,” she said. “It’s been a great learning experience.”

Like others, though, Till has no job waiting for her, but she will start over again and either look at new job opportunities or apply to a college.

Spc. Lance Daluson echoed Till’s concerns.

He has installed cable and copper wire and has taken classes to earn certifications.

“I am learning for after deployment,” said Daluson, who grew up in the Philippines but was naturalized a U.S. citizen at Camp Mercury four months ago. “I hope to get a job in what I am doing here.”

Daluson also took a class on writing resumes in addition to enrolling in other courses while at Kandahar.

“I have learned almost as much as I can about cable,” he said, “but I definitely want to take more classes (on new subjects) if they come out.”

Having a skill set

Chaplain 1st Lt. T.C. Houston said he is concerned about the unemployed soldiers who return to Nevada.

“The unemployment rate for vets is increasing,” said Houston, a Colorado Army National guardsman assigned to the 422nd.

Houston said when the soldiers return home, he hopes many of them can take advantage of job fairs and show prospective employers what they learned during deployment.

“They know being a vet gives them a skill set,” he added.