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Navy Petty Officer Leo Pike was laid off from his job as a New Bedford firefighter while he was serving in Iraq. (Fred Thys/WBUR)
Navy Petty Officer Leo Pike was laid off from his job as a New Bedford firefighter while he was serving in Iraq. (Fred Thys/WBUR)

The economy is not sparing military veterans. At a hearing in Worcester on Monday, veterans told members of the legislature about how layoffs are affecting them. They also revealed how prejudices against veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder are preventing them from working.

As veterans testified to the way they have been battered since returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, a consensus built in the hearing room that more must be done to help them get and keep jobs.

Lawrence Phillips did two tours of duty in Iraq as a Marine infantryman. He is now being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. A disabled veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, he works at Mass Veterans, Inc., the shelter in Worcester where Monday’s hearing was held.

“My goal in life and lifelong dream is to become a police officer,” Phillips said. “It’s taken me now two years and still going, and I’ve been to over probably about 30 police departments, and I have not yet been hired. I don’t know what it is that Massachusetts is looking for in a police officer. I’m 25 years old. I’m well capable of becoming a police officer.”

Phillips is aware that it’s a bad time to get hired as a police officer when police departments across New England are laying officers off. But he suspects that the main reason for his inability to get a job is that no police department wants to hire a veteran with PTSD.

Corporal Eric Madonna says he was relieved of his duties as a Fall River police officer after he revealed that he had post-traumatic stress disorder.

“My service to my country ruined my life, ruined everything I did,” Madonna says. “I was a decorated officer – officer of the year 2007, and 2009 I don’t have a job. They forced me out. They forced me to retire because I have post-traumatic stress disorder, and I shouldn’t have told them. I look back now, maybe I should have lied.”

Madonna says after he was relieved of his duties, he tried to contact every member of Congress he could think of.

“And the only person that called me back was Sen. McCain himself, from Arizona,” Madonna says. “The only one who called. Sens. Kerry and Kennedy sent me standard-form letters that never addressed what I wrote down in my complaint.”

A spokeswoman for Sen. John Kerry’s office says phone logs and notes show he never contacted the office. A spokeswoman for Sen. Edward Kennedy says notes show that Madonna told an aide to the senator that he decided against having the senator’s office call the Fall River Police Department on his behalf for fear that it would ruin his chances to get his job as a patrol officer back.

Sen. Kennedy’s office says it’s happy to help Madonna if he’s changed his mind.

The economy is hitting veterans as hard as it’s hitting the rest of the country. Secretary of Veterans’ Services Tom Kelly says the Massachusetts National Guard has noticed an increase in layoffs of its soldiers. He also says that, nationally, veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have a very high unemployment rate.

“Veterans between the ages of 18 and 24 have the highest unemployment, to date, at 14.1,” Kelly says.

That’s almost twice the national average, but it is the same unemployment rate as for non-veterans 18 to 24, so veterans of the recent wars are not suffering from unemployment any more than non-veterans. They are suffering more simply because they’re young.

The economy has also affected services to veterans. Members of the Patrick administration and legislators are worried that some cities and towns are not hiring a full-time veterans’ services officer, as they are required to by law, and they are considering increasing the penalties to cities and towns that don’t meet their obligations.

Steve Connor, the director of veterans’ services for Northampton and surrounding towns, worries that when some towns don’t offer veterans’ services, towns that do could get overwhelmed. “Now, the city of Northampton,” Connor recalls. “When I started five years ago, we were assisting 12 veterans. We are now at 120.”

Connor recognizes that one reason for the influx is the presence of a VA hospital in Northampton, but he believes that the other reason is that Northampton offers better services than surrounding communities.

Of particular concern to members of the joint Committee on Veterans’ Affairs are veterans who have lost their civilian jobs, while still on active duty. A police officer from Fall River who was blinded by an explosion learned he was being laid off while still being treated at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

New Bedford firefighter Leo Pike got word he was losing his job while he was in Iraq. Pike had served tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine before becoming a New Bedford firefighter. Two years ago, he decided to go back into the military. This time, he joined the Navy and went to Iraq. Last month, Pike’s girlfriend received a letter from the fire department.

“So now, she’s at home, ” Pike says. “She’s going to school full time. She works full time, and we have a two-and-a-half-year-old son. She has to wait for me to call home to say, ‘Hey! Guess what? Your job is gone.’ Now, if you talk to any firefighter, we love our job. I’m upset because I’ve been running into a burning building any one of my brothers, and the way I lost my job was like a slap in the face. ‘Thanks for serving and, by the way, when you get home your job’s gone.”

Pike is now an apprentice iron worker. He doesn’t know when he’ll get his job as a firefighter back.

“Now, do I think I should be free from layoffs? No. I feel that there’s seniority, and it’s there for a reason. That’s the union way. But wait ’till a guy gets home.”

The Patrick administration and legislators say they may not be able to tell towns to wait until their public-safety officers get home from the wars before laying them off, but they are promising to implement procedures to insure that those who are fighting overseas are at least informed in a respectful way that they don’t have a job to go home to anymore.

This program aired on April 14, 2009.

Fred Thys Twitter Reporter
Fred Thys reports on politics and higher education for WBUR.

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