MARIETTA - After 24 years as an Army helicopter mechanic, Bob Pauley's latest challenge is being a college student.
Pauley, 47, of Gallipolis, is entering his second year studying auto diesel technology at Washington State Community College. He said the school is providing him with assistance as he makes the transition to civilian work, something that's easier said than done for some veterans of the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The unemployment rate for those who served in the wars was 7.6 percent in February, a decline from January and less than the 8.3 percent national rate, according to The Associated Press. But some question how much good news that provides since the average for all of 2011 was 12.1 percent, and 30 percent for those ages 18 to 24.
Congress recently doubled to $9,600 the tax credit for employers hiring disabled veterans out of work at least six months. Federal agencies are also working to hire more veterans and work with private companies to hold job fairs.
To Greg Mitchell, director of career services at Washington State, there are many good reasons to hire a veteran.
"They're trained from day one to be team members (and) team leaders," he said, adding military veterans are also generally highly responsible individuals with a wealth of real-world experience.
Mitchell retired from the Air Force after 20 years of service and works with many of the approximately 75 veterans attending Washington State in his capacity as director of career services as well as the Veterans Club, which provides information through email and Facebook to former service members on campus.
For Pauley, he's been a valuable resource, helping him on matters related to school as well as concerns with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"He may not know the answer, but he knows how to steer me," Pauley said.
He also appreciates the opportunity to interact with other veterans like Lowell resident Mack McHale, who represents the Veterans Club in the student senate.
McHale, 52, said veterans may rib each other and play up inter-service rivalries, but they have a lot of common ground. He's just as comfortable swapping war stories with Pauley as he is with some of the younger veterans enrolling after serving in the Middle East.
"When it all comes down to it, we all know that we'll help each other," he said.
Pauley, who served a year in 2006 and 2007 in Iraq as a Black Hawk helicopter crew chief and technical inspector, retired from the Army in 2010. A service-related medical issue disqualified him from continuing to work on helicopters, so he was left looking for a new line of work.
Military benefits allowed Pauley to enroll at Washington State, but the change in lifestyle was not a simple one.
"I come out of combat and you have that extra height of attention that you've got to deal with," he said.
For instance, Pauley said the awareness he had to cultivate in the military often won't allow him to sit facing away from an open area.
"There's a lot of time out in the common area that I will sit with my back to the wall," he said.
Because veterans come to school with different mindsets and experiences, Mitchell said Washington State is looking to develop a veteran-specific version of the introductory PERS 100 course that teaches skills to help students entering college.
McHale said some veterans may struggle with finding a sense of purpose once their service ends, whether through voluntary retirement or because of a medical discharge or reduction in force. When he left the Navy in 1988 with a major spinal injury, he wasn't sure of his next step.
"It was really different," he said. "My prospects for employment were pretty stringent. I could never fly again; I could never be on a ship again. And those were the two loves of my life."
The G.I. Bill allowed McHale to attend Purdue University in Indiana, and another benefit no longer offered by the federal government helped cover a portion of his salary as a human resources manager at a plant. Today, he's a studio arts major, attending Washington State with his wife and daughter and offering a helping hand to fellow veterans.
Mitchell and McHale noted the Veterans Club is planning to be more active on campus, including establishing a dedicated Veterans Day observance. Mitchell said the school itself is reaching out to more veterans, noting there are nearly 2,000 ages 17 to 44 in Washington, Morgan, Noble and Meigs counties, along with nearly 2,800 in West Virginia counties with reciprocity agreements.
The school was named a "military-friendly" school by the publication G.I. Jobs last year. Some have criticized such titles, claiming they have more to do with making money than serving veterans.
Mitchell said Washington State has turned down requests to be considered for "military-friendly" tags from publications whose primary focus was getting the college to purchase advertising.
"We're going to do a lot of vetting to make sure they're in the process of doing something good for the veterans," he said.
Marietta College also welcomes veterans to its campus, participating in the Yellow Ribbon program to provide tuition and fees in an amount matched by the VA. There are currently 28 veterans on campus, ranging from younger soldiers who served a few years to those who have retired after more than 20 years of service, said Sharon Warden, associate director and transfer coordinator in the office of admissions.
"We have veterans in majors ranging from the traditional liberal arts through petroleum engineering," she said.
Warden said the college will provide individualized assistance to veterans looking to enroll.
Depending on eligibility, some veterans can transfer their benefits to a spouse or child, and Marietta has some students attending in that capacity as well, Warden said.
Both Marietta and Washington State allow military experience to provide credit toward a degree or certificate. Mitchell said a veteran can request transcripts from their branch of the service at no charge.
Translating that military experience into the civilian world can be an issue whether a veteran is looking to enroll in college or join the workforce. That's why the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services offers a "skills translator" online at OhioMeansJobs.com.
"We all know that veterans have a lot of different skills that are very marketable," said Ben Johnson, Job and Family Services spokesman. "And sometimes their only problem is if you've never written a resume for the private sector, a veteran may not know how to describe those skills so the resume gets noticed."
Ohio's One-Stop Job Centers also have employees dedicated to assisting veterans looking for work. These individuals are veterans themselves, Johnson said.
"So they maybe have a better understanding of some of the issues that veterans face," he said.
The One-Stop Center at Washington-Morgan Community Action is currently looking for someone to fill that role, but Kathy Lott-Gramkow, director of employment and training for Community Action, said a specialist from another office is still assisting local veterans in need.
"We can always put them in contact with a veterans employment services specialist," she said.
Lott-Gramkow said veterans do come by the office seeking work, but she hasn't noticed an unusual amount. Roy Ash, Washington County veteran services officer, said he estimates about 20 to 30 have been referred to the One-Stop by his office in the last two years.