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By Mike Brunker Projects Team editor
msnbc.com
updated 7/3/2009 7:55:43 AM ET 2009-07-03T11:55:43

The return of the Elkhart-based Indiana National Guard’s 1538th Transportation Company from Iraq this week was a joyous occasion. About 400 friends and family members lustily cheered and applauded the unit’s 182 citizen-soldiers as they marched in formation into a hangar at Stout Field in Indianapolis.

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The gathering might have been even more boisterous were it not for the realization that these Guardsmen are coming home to face a new enemy — a swooning economy that has landed like a KO’d heavyweight on the canvas of their home towns.

The 1538th sustained no casualties during its almost 10 months in Iraq ferrying supplies and providing security for U.S. military convoys, perhaps in part by obeying its unofficial motto, “Drive it like you stole it.” But the same can’t be said for the jobs its members left behind.

Forty-six soldiers — fully 25 percent of the company — have no work awaiting them, including many whose jobs vanished while they were heeding their nation’s call.

“They pretty much said there’s nothing to come back to, better start looking for another job,” said Pfc. Jonathan Maher, 20, of the Elkhart County community of Bristol, recalling the letter he received from his employer, Keystone RV, shortly after Christmas.

With one foot in the military and one in the civilian world, National Guard and Reserve soldiers typically are more susceptible than members of the active duty services to economic downturns. While they serve, their civilian jobs are protected by the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), but that is no help when layoffs occur, unless discrimination can be demonstrated.

That’s a point being driven home for many members of the 1538th. It draws most of its members from Elkhart County and other areas of northern Indiana that have some of the highest unemployment rates in the U.S. following the collapse of the RV industry and other key manufacturing sectors.

Elkhart-Goshen's unemployment rate was 17.5 percent in May, an increase of 11.4 percentage points from a year earlier. That's much larger than the national jobless rate of 9.5 percent in June, which is itself at a 26-year high.

Maher, who had saved enough money to buy a house after 2-½ years in Keystone’s receiving department, had to back out on a pending offer after learning he had been let go. Now he’s going to move back in with his mom and stepdad.

“They had told us when we left that we had nothing to worry about,” he said matter of factly. “I was shocked at first, but I just figured I’d go deal with it and figure something else out.”

Maher appears to be one of the lucky ones, having lined up a new job welding UMP dirt racecars for a South Bend company, thanks to the recommendation of a fellow mechanic he served with in Iraq.

But many others are expecting to hit the bricks as soon as they get home this weekend after demobilization at Camp Atterbury, a sprawling training camp about 40 miles south of Indianapolis.

Sgt. Russell See of Elkhart said he found out in April that his job as a welder at Valmont Industries had vanished, a development that was communicated via an e-mail from the human resources department.

“It kind of floored me at first,” said the 41-year-old See, who worked in a unit building steel light poles which the company eliminated. “You’re feeling comfortable and cushy with a steady paycheck from the government and suddenly you’ve got to look at how you’re going to keep your head above water.”

The resumés that See has dispatched in advance of his return have yielded no offers. He has some savings, some accrued leave and will be eligible for unemployment benefits. But with a new house purchased for $65,000 just days before he was laid off, he figures he has only eight months or so to either find a job or consider what is now almost unthinkable — signing up for a third tour of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan.

“I’ll have to do something, but it really starts hitting you more the older you get,” he said of the stresses of a combat mission.

Returning soldiers interviewed by msnbc.com at Camp Atterbury said they were generally aware of the economic mayhem unfolding at home while serving in Iraq, but found it difficult to follow the story from afar.

Spec. Joseph Dilts of Fulton County commuted to a job as a plastics handler for Plastics Solutions Inc., in South Bend, before being laid off a month ago. The 37-year-old said he learned that his job was gone after receiving an urgent phone call from his wife telling him to call work. When he did, he found out that his entire section had been eliminated.

Dilts said he had become concerned when he saw televised reports in Iraq about the stock market’s steep decline and the horrific sales and earnings posted by the auto industry. Still, he said, it was shocking to hear about the layoff because it was difficult to piece together the story when he was only able to catch snatches of newscasts.

“I saw President Obama go to Elkhart,” he said. “I didn’t really understand why he was going, but then I heard about the RV industry.”

Dilts said he is looking to take advantage of programs the Guard offers to assist returning soldiers and is considering returning to school. Asked what sorts of jobs he would look for in the near term, he said he would likely draw on his military experience and look for work in transportation or security.

Pfc. Christine McAllister, 22, of Elkhart, said she got most of her stateside news by phone while she was in Iraq.

“I didn’t watch much news while I was in Iraq because I didn’t have time, but my mom was always telling me what was going on in Elkhart … and that everyone was getting laid off,” she said.

McAllister is among the unemployed returning Guards, but by choice.

She said she quit her job as a security guard at Godfrey Marine in Elkhart when she left with a long-term goal in mind.

“I’ve always wanted to be a nurse, and I’m going to use all my military benefits to do that,” said McAllister. She plans to attend Ivy Tech Community College full time and to continue to serve in the Guard after graduating.

But for others, the active duty paycheck from the Guard provided a safety net that will soon be withdrawn.

Spec. Heather Smiechowski, 25, of South Bend said she is concerned about her ability to land a good civilian sector job because she sometimes needs to take time off on short notice to care for her autistic daughter, the youngest of her three children. She said she has a little breathing room, after saving everything she could from her pay while in Iraq while sending back money to her grandfather to help pay for her children’s care while she was gone.

“I’m going to take some time off and spend it with the kids … and then I’m going to hopefully get a decent job to where I could support the three of them and myself, and hopefully still have the leeway to get the care my daughter needs,” she said.

“But my confidence really isn’t too high,” she said of her job prospects. “I understand when people need someone to be there … and they’ve got this person who can’t because they have to do the things that I have to do. I mean I understand, but it doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop fighting.”

The Indiana National Guard has taken note of the hardship that Guards like Smiechowski are facing and is attempting to help.

It launched a new Employment Coordination Program in May that already has placed about a dozen Guards in jobs, said Scott Mitten, a hard-charging ex-Army Ranger brought in to run the operation. He also has developed a Web site to match jobs with out-of-work Guardsmen or other veterans. On Thursday, the site had 88 jobs listed, including 35 in the civilian sector.

With the innovative program just getting up to speed, the 1538th will be an important test because its commanders were the first to report “quality numbers” on its soldiers’ employment status, he said.

Mitten said he already has begun contacting transportation companies, both local and national, and “explaining that we have a batch of Guardsmen coming home and we’re looking to create 46 careers.”

He said he doesn’t think his job will be difficult, as employers have so far been very receptive.

“The employers know what they’re going to get when they hire a serviceman, a veteran, a Guardsman, a Reservist — the discipline, the drive, the training, the education and the ability to stick with the task,” he said.

In other words, he said, his job is comparable to selling a fine watch.

“No one sells Rolex,” he said. “You have to sell other brands, but a Rolex sells itself.”

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