Joe Stenberg left the Army in April 2009 anticipating that his experience as a combat medic in the Iraq War would help him land a well-paying job in the medical field.
Instead the retired sergeant from Joint Base Lewis-McChord found that much of the training from his 10-year Army career didn’t translate to the civilian professional licenses he’d need for the jobs he wanted.
He worked for a time drawing blood as a phlebotomist and as a basic emergency medical technician licensed to do little more than drive.
“The opportunities were pretty limited. They were all lower level – nothing even close to what I had been doing for the last decade in the Army,” said Stenberg, 30, who grew up in Kent and lived in Tacoma until late 2009.
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Washington lawmakers want to make it easier for veterans such as Stenberg to apply their military training to civilian careers. They’re advancing bills in the state House and Senate that would require state agencies to evaluate whether military experience can be applied to a variety of professional licenses ranging from nursing to cosmetology.
Some licenses require hundreds of hours of training and work under supervision – experience that the bills’ supporters say veterans already have.
“This is fair and right to the person who served, and it’s a smart deal for taxpayers not having to spend money or time training people for things they already know,” said Sen. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor.
Veterans say the changes are overdue, particularly for high-demand careers such as nursing.
“This is in a field where every time you turn around you hear they’re crying for nurses, but here they’ve got this crop of people they’re not going to help get certified,” said Mike Dalzell, 59, of Bremerton.
Dalzell retired from the Navy in 2003 as a master chief hospital corpsman with a 31-year career behind him. He couldn’t find civilian employment without returning to school that would have compelled him to take basic classes.
“You’re at the top of the pyramid in the Navy, but then you get out and it’s like, ‘Boy, you must’ve got stupid real quick,’” he said.
Dalzell eventually found work at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton.
The measures seem to have wide support. Kilmer’s medical bill earned praise at a Senate health committee last week. One industry group – a trade organization representing osteopathic physicians – asked to be included in the final draft because it was omitted in the first.
Other trades might ask to be excluded over time depending on whether they think military training adequately matches required programs in civilian schools. Dental hygienists, for example, have asked to be removed from Kilmer’s bill.
Gary Brackett, manager of business and development at the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, said the generally positive comments at last week’s hearing reflect a growing acknowledgement that employing veterans is an urgent challenge for the state.
“We look at it as a work force development,” he said. “We have people with skills that are paid for with experience.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics last year found that veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have a slightly higher unemployment rate than civilians with no military service behind them. Last spring, when the study was completed, 10.2 percent of recent war veterans were unemployed while 9.3 percent of nonveterans were out of work.
Stenberg’s story sheds light on those numbers. He was given a medical discharge two years ago and has had some trouble holding down work because of struggles with post-traumatic stress.
He left Tacoma when he determined that he couldn’t afford to live in the South Sound without a steady income. He’s now seeking work and medical care in Spokane. When he shows his résumé to employers in his field, he says they tell him, “‘It’s great. You can do it, but you’re not legally allowed to. It shows you have skills and experience, but it means nothing to us.’”
He was part of a forward surgical team in Lewis-McChord’s 62nd Medical Brigade that operated on Iraq’s front lines in 2005. There were about a dozen people in his team working in high-pressure situations. They came under rocket and mortar fire several times.
“While I was with them I did everything from A to Z. I was trained in emergency surgeries where there wasn’t a hospital,” Stenberg said.
Rep. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said she hears stories like Stenberg’s too often in her district. She sponsored the House versions of the employment bills.
“I met several different people in the course of my job who have been in war zones fixing people and they can’t become an EMT,” she said.