Wyoming veterans march into tough job market

By Joan Barron

Casper Star-Tribune

Published: Friday, Nov. 25 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

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.

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