CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Tad Roccaro's employment situation is typical of some recent Wyoming military veterans: Upon returning from war, he sought a better job than the one he had left.
"I got tired of the 40-below winters, working outside," the Afton native said. "I kind of decided I was smarter than that and decided to go to college."
Today, the 30-year-old former Marine is president of the Student Veterans of America chapter at Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne. Roccaro served in Kuwait and Iraq in 2002 and '03. He returned to Afton after leaving the service in 2004, bought a house and became an electrician and carpenter.
Although there was no veterans' job assistance available at that time anywhere in the Star Valley, Roccaro had no problem finding work. But he soon wearied of the work conditions.
When soldiers return from war, they reflect on their time overseas, said Larry Barrelbort, director of the Wyoming Veterans Commission. Some decide they aren't satisfied with their old jobs.
"They expect to land a better job than the one they had before," he said.
This may help explain why the unemployment rate for post-Sept. 11, 2001, Wyoming veterans is nearly 3 percentage points higher than that of the state's general population. According to the latest figures, the unemployment rate for the state's post-Sept. 11 veterans was 8.6 percent in May, said Wenlin Liu, a senior economist for the state. This works out to nearly 4,800 unemployed veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars out of a total Wyoming veteran population of 55,510.
The unemployment rate for all Wyoming veterans was 7.1 percent in May. In contrast, the state's general unemployment rate was 6 percent in May, and continues to hover around 5.8 percent.
Meanwhile, the national overall unemployment rate has been stuck around 9 percent, but the rate among the nation's 2.3 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is more than 13 percent, according to published reports.
While Wyoming's economy is in better shape than most states, its veterans are finding a tough job market here, too — for myriad reasons.
Roccaro, who is single, moved to Cheyenne in 2009 and enrolled in Laramie County Community College, majoring in radiography and communications.
He chose radiography as a major because of his interest in medicine after his mother died of cancer when he was 13 years old.
He and other veterans organized the Student Veterans of America chapter in order to reach out to other returning veterans. Roccaro noted there is no Veterans Administration representative on campus, a situation he believes should be remedied.
VA officials pointed out a veterans' representative office is located at the VA Center in Cheyenne.
But Roccaro said most veterans don't wander far from the campus. He noted that 350 to 400 veterans are enrolled in the community college.
Regarding GI benefits, Roccaro said they're a "great deal," at least for him.
When he was in the Marines, he paid in $1,200 for his GI bill plus a $400 "kicker," which was the full post-Sept. 11 contribution.
Roccaro wasn't interested in college at the time but was talked into investing in the program by his fellow Marines.
Now he's glad he did. In return for his contribution, he is eligible for five years of college, or almost enough to earn a master's degree.
The federal government pays up to the average tuition cost, which is about $2,000 per semester in Wyoming.
In addition, the government pays a book stipend of $1,000 per academic year and a base housing allowance up to an enlisted grade E-5, which amounts of about $1,000 per month in Cheyenne.
Lisa Goss is the scholarship and veterans' coordinator at Casper College. She said she is seeing more military veterans enrolling in college.
Many of them have found they are either over-qualified or under-qualified for employment.
"That's why so many are choosing to come and get their degree so they can be more marketable," she said.
Most of the veterans enrolling at Casper College are between 25 and 35 years old and have completed some college classes but don't have an associate degree, Goss said.
In school, they run into more barriers and frustration, she said, because veterans' education benefits tend to lag a month.
Wyoming has many resources to help veterans transition into civilian life, yet many don't take advantage of them, or perhaps don't know about them, state officials said.
The Wyoming Department of Workforce Services has veterans' representatives, who help veterans individually with job searches, in most of the major Workforce Services centers in the state.
The Wyoming National Guard has its own jobs coordinator for returning guardsmen. The Guard also has a support program for employers who agree to hire back a deployed Guard member when he or she returns.
Some veterans, such as D.J. Brown of Cheyenne, haven't found that meaningful job — a full-time position with good pay.
Brown, 26, is a member of the Wyoming Army National Guard. He was deployed to Kuwait for one year in 2009-10, working as part of a ground crew. His job involved moving road barriers and replacing and turning on and off street lights.
Brown had worked at a concrete plant since graduating from high school. Since returning from Kuwait, he has been performing temporary construction work until he can find a better-paying, full-time job.
He has thought about attending college and would be interested in accounting or in becoming a contractor.
"But right now, I need to find a job to support my family," he said.
He and his wife, Heather, have three children ages 8, 4 and 20 months.
"There are openings for jobs, but it doesn't seem like they're getting back to me," Brown said. "I went through job assistance programs and they tried to help me find a job, but they have been unsuccessful."
Brown continues to send out resumes.
Meanwhile, his wife is working for an airline.
"Right now, it's kind of a struggle," he said. "We're doing the best we can."
Veterans offer a lot of skills that employers like, Barttelbort, of the Wyoming Veterans Commission, said.
"They know how to take orders and show up. They make great employees, but they need to learn how to search for a job," he added.
Many veterans also need help in translating the skills they learned in the military into a private-sector job.
If they are unsuccessful in finding that "meaningful job," the ex-soldier might decide to get more education, Barttelbort said.Comment on this story
On the national scene, more help should be coming for veterans looking for work.
The U.S. House recently passed an Obama administration-backed bill to give employers tax credits for hiring veterans.
The president also is supporting improvement of the federal employment and transition programs for veterans.
"If you can save a life in Afghanistan, you can save a life in an ambulance in Wyoming," President Barack Obama said recently in published reports.