This is the first of a three-part series examining government services addressing key challenges among military veterans amid high unemployment, a woeful economic outlook and an anticipated influx of veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan in the next few years.

The nation’s military veterans have long been lauded America’s heroes, deserving the utmost respect, admiration and support from fellow citizens.

But beyond the yellow ribbons and rhetoric are an estimated 1 million service men and women without jobs, many of whom are struggling with new disabilities and securing basic needs such as a place to live when they return home from war zones overseas.

The statistics prove more needs to be done. We have to do a better job of helping them know what jobs are out there and how their skills translate.” – Karen Evans

The high veteran unemployment rate – most recently 9.8 percent – not only reflects the poor economy, but also the difficult transition facing veterans who return home and a system that has sometimes fallen short.

Nick Colgin is one of them. The 26-year-old Army veteran saved lives as a medic serving in Afghanistan and earned a Bronze Star after surviving a gunshot to his head. Yet, until a few weeks ago, he was unemployed save for a brief part-time job since returning home in April 2008. He blames a complex and ineffective system that leaves veterans short on job search skills and necessary certifications as well as employer discrimination and a lack of support for mental health issues.

“They didn’t give me the certifications to match the civilian side,” he told AOL Government. “The federal government needs to step up and give us the equivalent of what’s required in the civilian world. We just get a piece of paper and it’s like four years of your career is erased. I had no resume. I didn’t know about wearing a suit to an interview. I didn’t even know if I should say I was in the military. There’s a lot of discrimination with that.”

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan come to an end, another 1 million-plus just like Colgin are projected to leave the military and join the workforce in the next five years, which adds up to mounting pressure on already squeezed and often criticized government services for veterans.

And as the Defense Department begins making good on plans to cut upwards of $450 billion from defense budgets over the decade ahead, another wave of military personnel will soon be looking for work.

A new report published on suggests there’s some more hope for veterans’ looking for work: that men and women in uniform will find a relatively wide assortment of high paying jobs in the market that require many of the specialized skills they learned while serving the nation.

But many agree the federal government should be doing more to help.

“The statistics prove more needs to be done,” said Karen Evans, a retired Office of Management and Budget official who’s now a partner in a consultancy and serves as National Director at US Cyber Challenge. “We have to do a better job of helping them know what jobs are out there and how their skills translate.”

Several federal agencies are indeed preparing for the anticipated influx and ramping up efforts to address veterans’ needs as they take on the challenges of acclimating to civilian life, finding a home, accessing health care and learning how their skills apply to jobs outside the military. Efforts include programs within the American Jobs Act and partnerships with private industry as well as a new focus on helping disabled veterans and understanding mental health needs.

Federal officials say these efforts will help ensure veterans are educated, trained, and able to navigate the difficult labor market and succeed in the civilian workforce is a top priority for the current Administration. The American Jobs Act includes tax credits from $5,600 to $9,600 to encourage businesses to hire unemployed veterans and an expanded Post-9/11 GI Bill program provides vocational training and other non-degree job training programs.

Though all of this comes a little late for Colgin, he’s pleased with his new role working for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America helping those struggling as he did.

“The federal government has invested in us and they’re getting a poor return on that investment if we can’t get out of the military and go to work,” said Colgin, whose story was highlighted by President Obama in a speech delivered August 6, 2011.

Colgin remains hopeful new efforts within the federal government will make a difference for his fellow veterans still looking for work and who will be headed home in the coming weeks, months and years.

In Part 2 of this series, Breaking Gov reports on the government’s efforts to boost hiring within the public and private sectors through special programs as well as partnerships with Microsoft and other large employers with a need for skills military veterans readily possess.


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