My Unemployed Life: A Soldier Without Work

I always thought that employment was a choice people made, and that the unemployment rate was just a term they threw around on the news. Before it happened to me, I was a full-time soldier certain that I would ease into the civilian workplace without a hitch, until I found myself unemployed long-term.

After years of serving my country and working in the U.S. Air Force, I fully expected to jump into the civilian world and find the same success I had as a soldier. It turns out that I was very wrong about that, because I didn't find a job waiting for me, I became one of the unemployed they talked about on the news.

My job in the Air Force was as a weapons expert. I was essentially a missile and bomb loader, also responsible for inspecting, troubleshooting or repairing any of the weapons systems on the aircraft. I was originally trained on the B1 bomber and was stationed in South Dakota for about four years. My assignments also took me to Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia (I was there during 9/11), South Korea, the Netherlands, and finally in the depressing hellhole that was Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico. It was then, after almost 10 years in the service, that I entered the private sector.

No luck trying several avenues

At first I just thought it was just bad luck that I wasn't getting any job hits. I applied for jobs at airports, with Homeland Security and at banks, because they were all applicable to my experience in the service. It was stunning to me that I was rejected from all of them, but I didn't let it deter me. I entered a trade school for commercial divers and paid $25,000 in tuition, believing the school's promises that I would make triple that in my first year. I had wanted to get into that field for some time, and at the school I learned to do both diving around offshore rigs as well as inland diving.

After leaving dive school I worked small jobs as a diver here and there, but never found a permanent, full-time position and certainly was never well paid. I had to leave my family and travel all over the country, getting paid very little for working 12-hour shifts. After travel nearly destroyed my marriage, I came back home and tried my hand at applying for full-time local jobs, this time with a student loan looming over my head.

I went to the unemployment office and was rejected benefits, because I had worked as a contractor. I explained we were not making bills or rent and could barely afford groceries, but they didn't offer any help. With reluctance, at the age of 32, I had to turn to my mother for help and have her take care of my bills until I got on my feet. The financial strain became so bad that my wife and I fought all the time. I had never felt lower in my life, and I knew some of it was because I made some bad decisions concerning taking out the loan.

We both started applying for any job that we thought would take us. In one month my wife sent out 52 applications and I sent nearly double that, all over America. I practically begged employers for a chance to prove myself, but time and time again they "went with an internal applicant" or said "our budget was cut and we are downsizing" or worse, explained that "you do not have the experience we require," even if it was something as simple as answering phones.

Doing whatever it took

This cycle of despair went on for months and months and I began to have dark thoughts that because of my life insurance I was worth more dead than alive. My mother just kept paying our bills and my father-in-law contributed enough for rent to get us by. The cost of living in Burlington, Vt., began to skyrocket, and we started fantasizing about leaving the country altogether and starting over somewhere where the basics of life are much cheaper than in America.

Finally, a local health-food store called and offered me a position that didn't pay a lot but was at least full time. I jumped on the chance to take it and found that we could survive on my salary, especially if we saved on food by eating the damaged goods and free food from the buffet at the store. I knew we couldn't live like that forever, but I was grateful for even that job and treated it like gold. Things at home started to improve and I never gave up my search for a higher-paying permanent job.

The phone call that turned things around

One day I received a phone call out of the blue that IBM wanted to interview me. I had applied online about seven months prior, so was shocked when that call came. I was thrilled that after interviewing and submitting the necessary paperwork that they accepted me into their work force. I was assigned to what is called the "clean room." Basically, that is a massive sterile assembly line that computer wafers pass through. I ended up getting assigned to an area called "Inline Test," that runs tests on the computer wafers to see which, if any, computer chips need to be scrapped. Every day I go to work I am grateful that I do not have that feeling of desperation gnawing at my stomach and killing everything in my life.

My marriage is better than ever and we are slowly working on a plan so that we can get some actual savings tucked away. I learned valuable lessons while I was unemployed: first, that just because you served the country, you are not guaranteed a job; and second, that unemployment is not a choice. I vowed that I will never judge anyone in that position again. I will always remember just how fast I nearly lost everything and will work twice as hard to make sure I do not lose what I have now.

The fear is still there, in the back of my mind, that it could all be taken away again, so I can only hope that the economy stabilizes. I never want to be without work again, because it truly is murder on the body and soul. No one in our country that is willing and able to work should have to go through what I went through. But sadly I know I was just one story in a sea of unemployment.

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