Finding jobs a battle for many returning veterans

Staff Writer

 An Honor Garden at the Eatontown Historical Museum pays tribute to veterans and active-duty service members during a Nov. 2 ceremony held in advance of Veterans Day, Nov. 11.  SCOTT FRIEDMAN An Honor Garden at the Eatontown Historical Museum pays tribute to veterans and active-duty service members during a Nov. 2 ceremony held in advance of Veterans Day, Nov. 11. SCOTT FRIEDMAN A fter returning from Iraq in 2009, U.S. Army veteran James Nammoura knew he had to make a big move to secure a career.

Met with a poor economy at home after several years away, he decided to take advantage of the G.I. Bill and attend Brookdale Community College in the Lincroft section of Middletown, a move that would lead to a career as a sheriff’s officer.

“With that opportunity, I didn’t want it to go to waste. I didn’t just want to sit around and waste time,” he said. “I was putting out [job] applications and no one was getting back to me, so I just went straight to college.”

Nammoura is among thousands of veterans who have returned from overseas in recent years to face a struggling job market and a host of issues transitioning to civilian life.

“Every issue I deal with — whether it be homelessness, health care, any kind of financial crisis — they are solved with a job,” said Jack Fanous, executive director of the G.I. Go Fund. “At the end of the day, every problem that exists in the veterans’ world is actually solved with a job.”

Fanous co-founded the G.I. Go Fund in 2006 with the intent of helping veterans in all walks of life after his friend, Army Lt. Seth Dvorin, was killed in Iraq. After a modest start, the Newark-based nonprofit has become a $1 million-plus national organization and will soon expand with JobPath, a web portal designed to help veterans find employment.

“It’s a job board — very similar to a or a Career- Builder, but specifically for veterans — where companies can post jobs,” he said. “The difference is trying to end the disconnect between the veterans’ community and the H.R. [human resources] community. “We are allowing the H.R. community to upload not just a job, but upload training for that specific job.”

The launch of the website,, is planned for Veterans Day. More than 10,000 veterans have already created profiles on the site.

Companies are encouraged to post specific job-training programs, as well as basicskills training programs, including Microsoft Office, according to Fanous.

“Now we can actually quantify the skills, as opposed to me asking companies to hire veterans because it is the patriotic thing to do,” he said.

“It is no longer you are just hiring one guy for a press release. We are going to get thousands and thousands of veterans hired through this program.”

The site also identifies grant and taxcredit opportunities for businesses that hire veterans.

Fanous said he was approached by representatives of the Clinton Global Initiative about creating a program that offers veterans more than a traditional job fair. He said he had grown frustrated with job fairs and was dismayed by the difficulties veterans were facing in their job searches.

“We host an event, we bring out 50 to 100 companies per event, and we get hundreds and hundreds of veterans to attend these events,” Fanous said. “At the event, there are only three or four people getting hired, and we’ve been looking for the reason.”

The G.I. Go Fund is one of several nonprofits that offer programs and services for veterans in New Jersey.

Community Hope has been providing employment, housing and mental health services for veterans since 1985. However, Anthony Oakes, director of veterans’ services for the nonprofit, said organizations tasked with helping veterans have a difficult time reaching their intended audiences.

“Many of the programs that are out here are nonprofits, and most of our money is spent on services — not on marketing,” he said. “So, to get the word out is very hard for us to do. It is work to gain trust, and once you do, your programs could flourish through word of mouth. But if you don’t provide a good-quality service, you really could suffer.”

Veterans seeking to take advantage of programs offered by Community Hope are encouraged to call the referral line at 1-855-483-8466.

The state also has a role in helping veterans.

Patrick Daugherty, spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, said his department provides mental-health services, financial counseling and job-placement assistance within the first 90 days of a veteran’s return from overseas. He said the services available today are far more comprehensive than they were during and after prior wars.

“It is far more entailed now. We have a robust program,” he said. “Now we are partnering with community organizations or departments within the state to have layers of overlap to ensure that the soldiers who return from today’s conflicts are part of the most complex reintegration process ever imaginable.”

Another option for returning veterans is the G.I. Bill, which allows them to return to school without facing the financial burden of modern-day college costs.

“I think probably the biggest issue is not knowing how to translate your military experience into easily identifiable skills for a prospective employer,” said Paul Lazaro, veterans affairs assistant at the Middlesex County College Center for Veterans Services. “[College] is probably the best way to set yourself up for a career after your military service.”

Lazaro, who has been deployed to Iraq twice as a member of the New Jersey Army National Guard, said veterans’ enrollment has increased in each of the three years since the program was launched at the college.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 5,511 veterans in New Jersey were using the G.I. Bill’s benefits in 2010, the most recent year for which data was available.

For Nammoura, college was the best way to transition back into society from the armed forces.

“I would say the first couple of months were more awkward than anything,” he said. “When I was overseas, we all heard there was a recession hitting, so when we got back here, we knew we had to reintegrate.

“It was just hard to get used to something like that — acclimating back into society was different [for returning veterans],” he said.

To help himself and others adjust to civilian life, he co-founded a club for veterans enrolled at Brookdale with the help of a fellow student and veteran.

“We became more like a club because we all had related experiences and we could talk to someone, and we talked about what we were going through coming from the military to college life,” Nammoura said. “It was a lot easier of a transition because we had a lot of other veterans we could talk to.”

After graduating Brookdale, the Spring Lake Heights native pursued a career in law enforcement and took the civil service test, which is an option for many veterans.

“New Jersey is one of the best states for veterans, because they offer veterans preference, which means you get to go on top of the list for the civil service test for law enforcement,” said Nammoura, who scored a 98 and would secure a job with the Hunterdon County Sheriff’s Office.

However, since college is not a viable option for every veteran, the new JobPath portal will fill a need for many who have returned to civilian life, Fanous said.

“Obviously, college isn’t an option for every single veteran — you come home 32 years old after six tours in Iraq, and [you have] a wife and kids at home, you are not taking English 101,” he said. “The military has trained these guys to be trainable, and if you are trained to be trainable, you can do anything.”