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Job prospects complicate choice between re-enlistment, home

Lots of people are smarter than me. Doctors, lawyers, economists – a whole host of people are smarter than me. I can live with that, especially since I share some traits with those smart people, like the sense of humor I share with those wacky economists.

In classic good news/bad news joke form, today’s economists are telling us the good news is the recession is likely over. The bad news punch line is that high unemployment rates are likely to linger for years. That’s more than a punch line to today’s military – it’s a punch in the gut.

High unemployment is yet another monster under the cot to today’s frequently deployed military. Conventional wisdom is that during high unemployment, hang on to your current job at all costs. But what if that bird in the hand is no dove of peace?

That tough call is hitting close to home. My son Tom has a wife and a new beautiful baby girl. He’s also in the Army, deployed in Iraq. Jobs back in the states are a frequent topic with his fellow soldiers as they contemplate their futures.

On Tom’s first mission, as the troops waited to depart, like in any other office they discussed the Zags and March Madness. Just prior to departure, Tom switched the vehicle he was driving, at the request of the other driver. A little later, an improvised explosive device killed that soldier as my son watched from his new vehicle.

On another mission, Tom was riding shotgun – an all-too-descriptive term in a war zone – when a fellow soldier asked to change seats. Another IED, and despite almost immediate medical care, another family is mourning.

Recently another mission, some 35 miles in length, took 14 hours due to the seven IED blasts the convoy took. Doesn’t Iraq have OSHA? One of those blasts got my son – but immediate medical help saved Tom despite heavy loss of blood. Knocked out, he woke up in a medical unit asking, “How did I get here, and does my family know?” Even in war, first thoughts are of family.

I was so elated to hear from Tom after the incident, all we could do was joke on the phone. Like when I asked, “How do you know where a bomb is?” Tom’s reply: “You don’t, Dad, but if there are loose wires on the road, you probably don’t want to drive over there.”

A few short years ago, I was teaching him to drive. Now he’s teaching me. When I asked Tom if he needed anything that I could send, he asked, “Do you have anything for a headache?” With humor like that, maybe he will be an economist.

What I would like to send him is a dog. The military – with high tech that often fails to detect low-tech ordnance, like fertilizer-based explosives – is turning to trained dogs. I’d want Tom’s dog to be some cross of Rin Tin Tin and Lassie. The Lassie part better not just be a one-trick pony, a la “Timmy’s down in the well.”

“Tom, don’t drive over there” better be part of the vocabulary, too.

Tom’s going to be fine. The stitches are out and he’s back on the job pulling missions – the latest one to recover a vehicle that had the tires blown off it. There’s a local economic growth possibility – open Abu Alton’s franchises all over Iraq.

Tom, with six more months of tour left, asked, “Do I re-enlist or get out and try to find a job, Dad?” What a question after what these troops have been through. Do you grab the re-enlistment bonus and stay, or do you get out and take your chances? It’s this war’s Catch-22 – or at least one of them. One of Tom’s fellow soldiers, a real popular guy, made his choice and re-enlisted for his family, which includes two children. He was killed, by an IED, coming back from taking a wounded colonel to medical care. The other troops thought, “That could easily be me.”

Some progressive communities recognize this issue. Chicago’s recent “Helmet to Hard Hat” job fair, helping former troops connect with understanding employers, is a great idea for any community wanting to offer their home-coming troops more than a hearty handshake.

If unemployment continues at these almost historic levels, Tom better save some aspirin for his commander in chief, President Obama. He’ll need ’em.

Don Harding can be reached by e-mail at